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Improving Legal Access for Spanish Speakers


UA Law students are working with interpretation students to help Spanish speakers receiving help from the Domestic Violence Law Clinic.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications October 31, 2007

Law students at The University of Arizona have paired up with undergraduates in the translation and interpretation studies program.

The match will help the James E. Rogers College of Law to expand its Domestic Violence Law Clinic to offer services to Spanish speakers, while also providing both groups of students with practical pre-graduation knowledge in a practicum setting.

Increased immigration, the rising Hispanic population and demand for more Spanish language interpreters drove the need for the collaboration, said Jaime Fatás, an assistant professor for the practice of translation and interpretation in the Spanish and Portuguese department.

Fatas said the partnership is an examples of ways the UA is attempting to “remedy some of the problems associated with fairness and access," and added that when individuals are provided clear communication and access "everybody wins."


Together, the students work under a confidentiality clause and help one another translate legal documents and letters and speak with clients who visit the clinic for help.
"It's very, very important," said Fatas, a federal court-certified interpreter.
The translation and interpretation students are also in the process of translating basic documents for clients that explain services available and issues of liability and limitations.

"The real challenge about legal terminology is that you have to get familiar with the legal language," said Zelda Harris, the clinical professor of law and the clinic’s director.
The translation and interpretation students take medical, business and legal translation courses as part of their curriculum. But in their work with the clinic, the students may be called to interview clients, talk to them over the telephone or explain various legal procedures.

Law faculty and volunteer attorneys supervise students during their work in various legal proceedings.

Considered a "teaching law office," the clinic offers legal advice and representation at no cost by allowing students to practice law and defend the rights of domestic violence victims. The focus is on cases that involve divorce, child custody, protection orders and also victim representation.

"The students have all of the training and supervision needed to provide quality representation. Even having interpreters at all is more empowering than telling the client to bring somebody along instead," Harris said.

The clinic has always been interdisciplinary and once had two interpreters on staff, but has not been able to support staff in recent years. "It's not that it didn't work, but there was no way to make it a dual-learning environment," Harris added. "These collaborations will continue," Harris said, "and that will happen more and more in the future." This has made the work with Fatas and his students all the more important.

"It is so much better to have a program where the translation and interpretation students are learning and that their work is being supervised," Harris said. "Now, the law students can work much better with them and we can learn about each other’s professions," she said, adding that “the clients will be better served."

Lizette Curiel, who handles the scheduling for translation and interpretation students, said that even when clients understand some English it is best to have an interpreter present.


"Even though they may understand everyday English, they may not understand legalese," said Curiel, a double major in Spanish and Mexican American studies with concentration areas in linguistics and interpretation. The collaboration keeps clients from having to guess, which means extra protection, Curiel said. She added that while the collaboration is new and the students are still learning, "this is going to become a very important service to the community." Elena Valencia, a third-year law student, said the work has already proven to be very beneficial. "The interpreters," Valencia said, "have allowed the clinic to accept a wider variety of clients."



Updated: 03/29/2011