February 24 2012 by Frances Gibb, Legal Editor
Courts last in translation... thanks to outsourcing giant
The Government intends to cut at least £350 million from the legal aid budget
Hundreds of trials involving witnesses or defendants who cannot speak English have been thrown into chaos by Government changes over booking interpreters, ministers admitted last night.
A Government minister acknowledged that the new system of outsourcing translators, aimed at saving some £18 million a year, has caused “unacceptable” disruption.
The new scheme for booking interpreters in criminal cases in Wales and England, as well as for hundreds of immigration hearings, was introduced by the Ministry of Justice. But problems started soon after it was launched, sparking delays and cancellations. The Courts Service was forced to take on extra workers to cope with demand for translators.
Crispin Blunt, Justice Minister, has now agreed that courts may revert to the old system if necessary to avoid delays at short notice adjournments.
He said: “There was an unacceptable number of problems in the first two weeks of full implementation of the contract after January 30, following a smoothly-implemented new service in the north west pilot area during the previous two months.
“Close monitoring of the national roll-out has ensured that an action plan to address the problems was in place within two weeks of the new interpreter service commencing on a national basis.
“This plan includes providing additional staff to deal with bookings, further targeted recruitment of interpreters in key languages and improvements to the call handling and complaints process.”
The about-turn came in answer to a written Parliamentary question by the shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter.
The new widely-criticised scheme required all court interpreters to come from new single agency, called Applied Language Solutions — with a call centre in India — rather than courts being able to select them from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, a list of accredited translators who work in specialist public services. Applied Language Solution is a subsidiary of outsourcing giant Capita.
Since the contract was launched there have been long delays, interpreters turning up late or underprepared or failing to turn up at all.
The court interpreters previously used by the courts were not prepared to work for the much lower rates paid by the new agency and without full expenses paid.
One court administrator told The Times: “We asked [last week] that this agreement with the new service should be torn up and the sensible arrangements in place before reinstated, before utter chaos unfolds with many adjourned hearings.
“The cost of adjournments should have been considered before the Ministry of Justice entered into this contract. Some interpreters often travelled long distances in the UK to serve requirements at Immigration Tribunal hearings at short notice.
“It was inevitable that they would no longer do this for next to nothing and this should have been obvious to the MOJ when they entered into this harebrained scheme.”
The new rates meant that interpreters could be waiting all day for a case and then paid £20.50, without any travelling costs, if within ten miles.
Interpreters have protested that they would end up working at a loss over the day, when parking and expenses into account.