01 November 2009
Battle of words threatens chaos in the courts
Scotland 's justice system is facing a revolt from professional interpreters which could throw the nation's courts into chaos, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
In an increasingly bitter battle over pay and conditions, the translators claim they are faced with swingeing cuts to their contracts amid grave concerns over the increasing use of unqualified and inexperienced substitutes that could lead to serious miscarriages of justice. They have now rallied together to form a new professional body – the Scottish Association of Interpreters & Translators (SITA) – with some members threatening to boycott court hearings and hold demonstrations to highlight their cause. They claim that inadequate translation services could lead to foreign nationals either being wrongly convicted or escaping justice.
The Miscarriages of Justice Organisation Scotland (MOJO) said the cutting of costs signalled a "very dangerous move", and threatens to undermine defendants' rights to a fair trial under the European Convention on Human Rights.
SITA has condemned a new contract, which came into force earlier this year, which allows for one agency, Global Language Services Ltd, to provide the overwhelming majority of work for the Scottish Courts Service (SCS), the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service. It has now started a database of problems in court cases linked to inexperienced translators which will be submitted to Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary.
The director of Global Language Services admitted that mistakes could be made in court, but said his industry is not as "formalised" as other professions. The arrangement means that even those self-employed interpreters with years of experience are guaranteed only £36 for a day's work, inclusive of travel costs. Many say they are being "starved" out of their profession as a result – one veteran is now eking out a living as a taxi driver – and replaced by individuals with insufficient training and a potentially dangerous ignorance of the legal system. This is despite the fact that the number of eastern European and other non-UK nationals appearing in court has risen in recent years.
Melanie Beaumont, a Spanish interpreter with 12 years' experience, said: "It's a scandalous situation. The new government contract has basically dealt a death blow to our profession, and there are going to be several miscarriages of justice, not just one." Beaumont, the Edinburgh convenor for SITA, added: "A major implication of all this is that foreign nationals, people who are already psychologically vulnerable, don't have access to a fair trial. They're victimising a silent clientele. "Boycotting court cases is something that we have talked about and there have been some more radical measures proposed. SITA are going to develop a strategy to take action." A senior source at SITA said demonstrations and boycotts were under consideration, and would be discussed by the association's full membership.
The £5.5m contract was intended to create a streamlined interpreting service for Scotland's justice system that would improve both "quality" and "efficiency," according to the Crown Office. The three-year contract was won by Global Language Services, a Glasgow-based firm, and came into force this summer. Yet many of the company's interpreters do not possess the industry benchmark qualification, known as a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI).
Beamont said: "Instead of having professionals, there's a system of self-certifying which allows them to drag in people from Indian, Chinese and Spanish restaurants. "Many of the interpreters being used aren't even bilingual – they just have a smattering of another language."
Last year, the jury trial of a migrant for assault collapsed after a sheriff discovered the accused's interpreter did not possess the DPSI or previous experience of working on a trial. Sheriff James Tierney halted the trial of Krzysztof Kucharski at Aberdeen Sheriff Court on the second day after the freelance interpreter admitted her inexperience in open court.
In 2006, an assault trial at Wick Sheriff Court involving a Polish accused and a number of Polish prosecution witnesses collapsed because of mistakes made by an inexperienced linguist.
George Runciman, director of Global Language Services, told Scotland on Sunday that a "fair number" of the 1,700 interpreters on his books do not possess the DPSI, but stressed that the industry was not a "nice, simple, logically structured profession". "The DPSI is not available in every language," he explained. "It can be a very expensive qualification for interpreters, so we look for equivalencies … but we're talking about a profession which isn't as formalised as the legal or medical professions." Asked about the danger of miscarriages of justice occurring due to inexperienced interpreters, Runciman said: "I suppose there could be mistakes, but generally this is not the case. It's a bit like driving a car. You could be a driver for 20 years with no problems and occasionally go over a white line or go faster than you should. It doesn't mean it's fundamentally erroneous.
"People are well aware of the need for training in the etiquette and formality of court. All these things are ongoing.
A Scottish Court Service spokesperson said: "This new contract delivers better value for public money, greater efficiency, and the SCS requires translators to have the DPSI. "Where this is not possible, written recommendations are required from the employer to state that the translator has equivalent qualifications and experience. "This must be provided in advance of a case and is made available to the presiding sheriff who can accept or decline the translator offered."