Language interpreters used by four police forces in north-west England are refusing to work for the agency that won the contract and are challenging the contract with a judicial review.
Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire and Cumbria police outsourced their interpreting services last year in exclusive deals with and agency called Applied Language Solutions (ALS). Previously, the forces had hired interpreters directly whenever they needed to talk to suspects, witnesses or victims who didn’t speak English well enough.
Normal guidelines for the use of interpreters in the Criminal Justice System say foreign-language interpreters working in courts or police stations should be registered on the National register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) to guarantee quality and guard against miscarriages of justice.
But many registered interpreters refuse to work for ALS. They take issue with its pisspoor rates of pay, its record on handling personal data (for which it has been reprimanded by the Information Commissioner) and its use of unqualified workers. As a result, there are no registered interpreters available for languages including Vietnamese, Slovak, Turkish, Thai, Polish, Mandarin and French. Police however have to accept unregistered people sent by the agency (if it can find anyone) or beg their bosses for permission to call NRPSI interpreters at extra expense.
The Professional Interpreters’ Alliance (PIA), formed in response to the outsourcing, has gathered a catalogue of ALS failures since August, mostly uncovered because NRPSI interpreters have been belatedly called to the rescue. These include incidents where suspects have had to be bailed because it has taken ALS so long to find an interpreter; where police and duty solicitors have been unable to understand an interpreter’s poor English; and where interpreters have been supplied for the wrong language (such as a Czech interpreter being sent for an interview with a Slovak-speaking suspect).
As revealed by the Eye in 2009, after Thames Valley Police made a similar deal with agency Language Line, one in fifteen of the interpreters sent to police stations were not properly qualified or registered. In the same year, the use of unqualified foreign students in the Scottish courts sparked serious fears of wrongful convictions and wrongful acquittals. Despite these failings being brought to their attention by interpreters and MPs, the north-west forces pushed ahead with the deal anyway. The application for judicial review is due to be heard in March.
The police forces have told the PIA that there is “no legal requirement” to use registered interpreters. However, the PIA says not to do so runs counter not only to the national guidelines, drawn up in 2001 by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform, but also the recommendations of the Auld report, the Runciman Royal Commission, CPS guidance, Law Society guidance, a recent EU directive, and, ultimately, the Human Rights Act.
Private Eye, Issue 1280, 21st January 2011 - Page 30 (Criminal Justice Roundup)