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ABA says lawyers have duty to overcome client language barriers

2 minute read

Signage is seen outside of the American Bar Association (ABA) in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • Lawyer has a responsibility to obtain translator if needed, opinion says
  • The opinion also deals with client hearing and speech impairments, cultural differences

(Reuters) - The American Bar Association published an ethics committee opinion affirming that it is a lawyer’s responsibility to ensure clear and accurate communication with clients who speak a different language or live with "non-cognitive physical conditions."

In the opinion published Wednesday, the association’s standing committee on ethics and professional responsibility said the country’s increasingly diverse population has brought the issue of lawyer-client language and communication barriers to the fore.

The opinion said that under ABA model rules on communication and competence, lawyers dealing with a language barrier have the duty to engage an “impartial interpreter or translator" capable of "comprehending and accurately explaining" legal concepts and respecting attorney-client confidentiality.

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A friend or family member of the client may serve in the role, but the opinion warned attorneys to guard against personal biases in these types of interpreters.

Lawyers should also use language translation technologies when necessary, the opinion said.

The decision about whether or not to have a translator may involve the client, according to the opinion, but is the full responsibility of counsel.

The opinion said that although there may be translators on hand for language interpretation, there may be other factors at play including cultural differences or a speech, hearing or vision impairment that lawyers must address.

“Awareness of, and ability to understand, issues of culture and disability that might affect communication techniques and influence client objectives is inextricably intertwined with providing effective legal advice to a client,” the opinion read.

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Chinekwu Osakwe covers legal industry news with a focus on midsize law firms. Reach her at Chinekwu.osakwe@thomsonreuters.com.

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