Officials at D.C. Superior Court, who say that getting through the city's legal system is often a problem for residents who are not fluent in English, have inaugurated several Spanish-language services.
Persons who have been stymied before now by the many court forms written only in English will now be assisted by duplicate forms in Spanish.
Felony trial Judge Ricardo M. Urbina, a native of Puerto Rico, said the new forms are a response to requests from city Hispanic organizations and are aimed at reducing the number of language problems that "just clogged up the system in many instances."
According to Urbina, the forms have been introduced in the Small Claims and Landlord and Tenant courts, areas of the legal system in which the city's poorest and least educated residents are most often involved.
Until now, Urbina said, Hispanic residents have been blocked in their efforts to go to court by their inability to fully understand and fill out the necessary forms.
"Many of these people can communicate verbally in English once they get in court," Urbina said. "The problem is they haven't been able to get in the door."
In Small Claims, for instance, where judges hear cases involving sums less than $750, seven forms have been translated from English into Spanish by a staff member in the city's Office for Latino Affairs.
The new forms duplicate the English version and assist claimants in giving English responses to questions written in Spanish.
Three Spanish forms have been introduced in Landlord and Tenant Court. The court also is making available for the first time forms for civil summonses and subpeonas written in Spanish.
Previously, Urbina said, persons unable to complete court forms in English had gone for help to private Hispanic assistance agencies in the city.
"They did get help," he said, "but it could have been self-help."
Urbina said he reviewed the translations before the forms were printed, as did Elias Rodriguez, chief administrative judge at the Civil Aeronautics Board and a member of the Hispanic Bar Association.
As for court clerks being able to read Spanish answers on the forms, Urbina said: "We haven't dealt with that problem just yet." Most of the forms, however, do not require descriptive answers, he said, and "we can always get a translator if we need one."
Urbina said he and others at the court hope soon to make Spanish forms available in criminal matters.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.