6 October 2011
Interpreters on the cheap could lead to miscarriages of justice
Anyone who watched Amanda Knox's powerful closing speech was struck by her ability to persuade her jury in fluent Italian, the product no doubt of four years education in an Italian jail. It may be no coincidence that her Italian was very much less accomplished when she was first arrested and convicted, amid claims that her retracted confession was made under duress.
A suspect arrested and investigated in a foreign country needs a good interpreter and translator just as much as she needs a good lawyer.
In 2007 Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, a former Egyptian army officer alleged to be one of the masterminds of the 2007 Madrid train bombers, was acquitted after he successfully argued that translations from Arabic of his wire-tapped conversations were inaccurate.
Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights requires that every defendant should "have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot speak the language used in court". Victims and witnesses should, of course, be afforded equal consideration.
Many in Britain fear that the result of a little-publicised change in the way police and court interpreters are to be engaged will dramatically increase the scope for miscarriages of justice and unfairness to victims of crime, as well as lengthening trials. It could ultimately lead to the Government being dragged before the European Court of Human Rights.
Both the 1993 Runciman report and the 2001 Auld report into the criminal justice system emphasised the importance to the justice system of properly qualified and remunerated court interpreters.
Following these recommendations the courts and the police have, save in exceptional cases, obtained interpreters and translators from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI). All its members are qualified, at the very least by long experience, and most possess at least a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting or equivalent qualification. All are security vetted.
Membership of the register is regarded as a mark at the very least of competence, and in many cases of excellence. Interpreting fees (which have not increased since 2006) are paid by the Courts Service and are not particularly high. At present, an interpreter is entitled to a minimum payment of £85 to cover the first three hours of interpreting. Thereafter he or she is paid at £30 per hour. Travel time is paid at a lesser rate and reasonable travel expenses are paid. The profession is highly competitive but good interpreters are able to make a reasonable living.
There may be a perception that interpreting fees are out of control, but the figures suggest otherwise. The total spent by the Courts Service on interpreters fell by 13 per cent from £49.2 million in 2009–10 to £47.2 million in 2010–11, while the Met's expenditure on interpreting and translation services has declined steadily from £10,541,000 in 2007-08 to £8,829,552 in 2010-11.
Nevertheless, if the Ministry of Justice has its way it is a system that is about to change. In August the ministry awarded a four-year contract worth £300,000,000 to Applied Language Solutions, an Oldham-based company set up and run by Gavin Wheeldon, 34, a former Dragons Den contestant.
The plan is that, from this month, instead of each court or police officer contacting a member of the NRPSI when an interpreter is required, they will instead contact ALS, which will engage its own interpreters, paying them a lower hourly rate and, crucially paying no minimum fee and no travel expenses. The hope is that the savings will be passed on to the Government.
It is in some ways surprising that the ministry is pushing ahead with the scheme given that a pilot scheme involving ALS and Greater Manchester Police collapsed this year amid mutual recriminations and the threat of legal action by the Professional Interpreters Alliance.
Other critics point to a similar scheme in Scotland where interpreting expenditure actually increased after it was introduced.
Many NRPSI-registered professional interpreters are angry. Hundreds are refusing to sign up with ALS and there is a real fear in the courts that interpreting standards will drop as a result.
ALS claims that this will not happen because it will require all its interpreters to pass a test run by "independent assessors" from Middlesex University. Candidates (who will have to pay £100 to take the test) will then be graded into three tiers. There will be no requirement for any of them to have any other professional qualifications or experience, leading many to fear that the only way ALS will be able to supply interpreters will be by employing unqualified and inexperienced staff who will earn (after deducting travel costs and waiting time) little more, and on some assignments considerably less, than the minimum wage.
Questions are also being asked about the independence of Middlesex University and its involvement with ALS. Far from being a disinterested assessor, the university is described on the ALS website as a "partner". The criteria that the university assessors will use, and the identity of the assessors, has not been made public, leading many to claim that far from trying to maintain standards the university will actually have an interest only in ensuring that ALS has a sufficient number of interpreters available to work for ALS for rock-bottom fees.
Understandably the Professional Interpreters Alliance has again threatened to bring judicial review proceedings against the Government and it may be that the contract will collapse ignominiously like that with Greater Manchester Police. If it does not do so then the courts may have to prepare themselves for a shortage of quality interpreters and the miscarriages of justice that will follow.
The author is a barrister at 3 Pump Court, Temple.