Thursday 16 February 2012
Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent
Courts given green light to hire own interpreters as ALS struggles to cope
Capita subsidiary failing to supply court and tribunal interpreters at short notice just two weeks after start of controversial contract
A £300m private contract providing interpreters to all courts across England and Wales has been partially abandoned two weeks after being launched.
The Ministry of Justice has circulated instructions to courts and tribunals allowing them to hire interpreters from other sources in "urgent" cases because hearings are being cancelled when Applied Language Solutions (ALS) translators fail to appear.
There had been widespread criticism of the deal with ALS, a firm acquired by the public services provider Capita Group last December. The company claims the contract, which formally started on 1 February, would save the government £60m over five years.
An internal MoJ email seen by the Guardian says: "We have decided that Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunal Service [HMCTS] must take urgent action to mitigate the number of hearings that are failing as a result of the contractor's difficulties with sourcing interpreters at short notice.
"With immediate effect HMCTS will revert to the previous arrangements for all bookings due within 24 hours at the magistrates' courts … we will revert to previous arrangements for urgent bookings required for bail applications, deports and fast track applications in the first tier tribunal immigration and asylum and urgent bookings in the asylum support tribunal."
It also admits: "We understand that some staff and judiciary have sympathy with existing interpreters. We must however do all we can to encourage sign-up to the new arrangements – the new contract has the potential to bring significant benefits to both interpreters and the justice system as a whole."
ALS confirmed that some cases have been cancelled because the firm was unable to provide interpreters.
"Unfortunately that has been true in some cases which is something that we are working extremely hard to resolve," an ALS spokesperson said.
The company explained that the original MoJ tender document had valued the five-year contract at £300m.
The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, wrote to the justice minister, Kenneth Clarke, this week warning about concerns within the "interpreting community" over the decision to channel all interpreting contracts through one firm.
"Ensuring value for money in delivery of translation and interpretation services is clearly important," he said, "but this must not be to the detriment of the quality of the service in such a critical area of justice."
Labour's justice spokesman Andy Slaughter said the contract had been awarded "in the face of clear warnings and opposition from the interpreter community" and that "hard-pressed taxpayers will have to foot the bill not only of delayed and abandoned court hearings, but of unnecessary remands into custody, appeals and judicial reviews".
Slaughter added: "There is a genuine risk of miscarriages of justice because of inadequate or unsuitable interpreting and translating service, and breaches of the right to a fair hearing under the Human Rights Act."
The Professional Interpreters' Alliance (PIA), which represents public service interpreters, told the Law Gazette this week that 60% of the 2,300 interpreters on the national register have refused to work for ALS because of disputes over pay policy and the standard of qualifications required.
When it began, the MoJ praised the ALS deal and said it meant that "that interpreting assignments across several agencies … can be allocated to interpreters more effectively.
"A single interpreter can now complete consecutive assignments for different agencies in the same general location where previously two, or more, interpreters would have been booked."
The MoJ acknowledged that there were problems: "The Ministry of Justice is working with Applied Language Solutions to closely monitor the operation of the new contract.
"The government is determined to ensure that taxpayers get value for money across the whole of the justice system. This new contract will save at least £18m a year on the cost of interpretation and translation, a reduction of almost a third, but will ensure that high quality interpreters and translators are still available to those in need."