23 March 2012
Court chaos as interpreter service goes private
Channel 4 News has evidence of a series of failures in Britain's privatised court interpretation services, including claims that unqualified translators are being sent to cover criminal court cases.
Every single day, in courts across the country, professional interpreters help to translate proceedings for defendants, witnesses and victims. They take pride in their work - or at least, they used to.
At the beginning of February, the Ministry of Justice privatised the system of booking interpreters across the criminal justice system. It awarded a lucrative contract, worth £300m, to a relatively small company from Oldham called Applied Language Solutions (ALS). The contract was supposed to save £18m a year - but critics say it's already costing that much.
Professional interpreters say Britain's reputation as having the fairest legal system in the world is being undermined by privatisation. ALS have cut the rates of pay offered to professional interpreters, and as a result many are boycotting the company. It's claimed that as a result, the company is struggling to recruit enough translators.
We've travelled to courts across the country and heard of cases having to be adjourned and even dismissed every single day, when ALS interpreters fail to turn up. Many court clerks have told us they aren't even given notice.
In some cases, the clerks have to resort to desperate measures. "The clerk had to go online and use Google translate to explain the bail conditions because the ALS interpreter didn't turn up. That's just not right."
Peter Beeke is chair of the magistrates court in Peterborough - he told me that people's lives are being affected by the failures of the courts contract.
"I'm seriously worried about the quality of justice being meted out," he said. "I'm particularly worried that people on relatively minor theft matters are being held in custody unnecessarily.
"Everybody is entitled to bail in this country, provided they meet certain conditions. But we're having to deny it just because interpreters haven't turned up.
"If they were English speakers they'd be treated differently."
Children deprived of care
Channel 4 News has learnt that a number of these defendants are now considering civil action against the MoJ after being held in custody unnecessarily, when ALS interpreters failed to turn up.
Dhaneshwar Sharma represents a mother of three who had to be remanded into to prison for the theft of a mobile phone - a first-time offence that wouldn't normally result in remand.
"On the first two hearings, the ALS interpreter simply didn't turn up," she told Channel 4 News. "It was only on the third day they turned up and she was granted bail.
"But in those three days, we had a mother being held in prison and her three young children deprived of her care."
Mr Sharma's client is now considering civil action - and the solicitor himself has applied for an order against ALS for wasted time costs. Mr Sharma told us he believes there will be other cases to follow.
Applied Language Solutions was set up by businessman Gavin Wheeldon. He once appeared on the documentary Secret Millionaire, boasting that he liked to start each day by visualising his goals in a self-motivating power-point presentation. "It's one thing to say I want a Ferrari… but another to actually visualise it."
But interpreters hired by Mr Wheeldon's company say there's no chance of them ever owning a Ferrari under the terms and conditions offered by ALS.
Mr Wheeldon won the lucrative MoJ contract by promising to slash costs for employees, reducing the rate of pay offered to professional interpreters - but soon found that qualified translators were boycotting his company.
We understand that the company is still struggling to recruit enough people, and we've heard worrying claims that unqualified interpreters are being sent to court.
We spoke exclusively to an interpreter who had never been inside a British courtroom and yet was given three cases to translate. He admits he didn't even know the dress code and was extremely daunted.
'I'd never been inside a British courtroom before.'
In an extraordinary interview, an interpreter was telling me how he was sent to cover three criminal court cases, despite not having enough experience. "I didn't feel confident. I didn't even know the dress code," he said.
He didn't want to be identified, and it soon became clear why. A professional man, with many years' experience in the public sector, he applied to ALS after being made redundant.
"I needed the money, and thought I'd give them a go." He filled in an online application, and had to complete two tests. Although he is fluent in many languages, he has never worked in a courtroom. Interpreting legal language is a very specialist skill. Even native English speakers can struggle to understand the jargon.
Given his lack of experience, he should never have been given jobs in court, according to ALS's own agreement with the government. The interpreter was not aware of this rule, yet was still surprised when he was given three cases to work on. "I was surprised, yes. I thought they should have had stricter procedures. I was given a burglary and a remand hearing."
I asked him what kind of support and guidance he was given by ALS before he was sent to court. "I was given the address of the court. And told it was a remand hearing. That was it."
As soon as he got into court, he said he felt daunted, not knowing even where to sit, how to address the barristers or judges. In addition, he couldn't actually see or hear the defendant very well from where he was sitting. "I had to stop the proceedings and explain to the judge that I couldn't hear the proceedings very well."
Luckily, our interviewee was confident enough to admit his concerns to the judge. He was moved so that he could be nearer the defendant, the proceedings were slowed down, and he says he managed to get through the hearing.
He has since decided not to accept any more court jobs. But others may not be as consciousness. We've heard worrying claims that his story is by no means a one off. Solicitors have told us of interpreters turning up with only an Oyster Card as identification; of another turning up in builder's overalls and a hard hat.
Channel 4 News has heard of a number of similar stories - a situation so farcical that one interpreter claims she even managed to get her pet rabbit registered with ALS.
Czech interpreter Marie Adamova says she successfully filled in an online application for carrot-chomping Jajo. "He's officially listed as being available to work in courts and police station."
Ms Adamova turned up in a huge rabbit outfit at a demonstration outside the Ministry of Justice.
ALS told us they couldn't find the rabbit on their system. The company told us: "All our translators are qualified to at least the minimum standards required to provide services to the criminal Justice system. Official feedback from the courts suggest there is only a very small number of cases where interpreters do not turn up."
The Moj says ALS won the contract because it put forward the best bid and had demonstrated an ability to deliver.
And yet Channel 4 News has learnt that there were warning signs about the company's performance three years ago. In 2009, ALS began signing contracts with six police forces across the north west, including Cheshire and Grater Manchester, to provide interpreters for suspects held in police stations. Yet it's claimed there were numerous problems.
The Liberal Democrat MP John Leech believes the company's track record should have acted as a warning. He says he raised his concerns with the MoJ, but these concerns were ignored.
"One particular example I remember: they'd sent a Slovak speaker instead of a Czech speaker, for instance."
On hearing ALS had won the contract, he said: "I was amazed, frankly. It's ludicrous that they won the contract for the MoJ, and the MoJ were warned."
Call to scrap courts contract
And it wasn't just the police contracts. ALS also won contracts with a number of NHS trusts, including Dudley. We've seen the minutes of a meeting in which concerns were raised with the company about the quality of the service - complaints were made about the English language skills of interpreters and the translation of medical terminology. The trust told us that services have since improved. But Mr Leech and others are now calling on the government to scrap the courts contract.
In response to our investigation, ALS told us -
"There have always been some cases which have been held back and suspects detained longer... because of a lack of available interpreters at a specific time. Inevitably there will be a period of transition as embedded, but inefficient, working practices are changed.
"The contract began less than two months ago, we are fulfilling the vast majority of bookings (nearly 3,000 a week) and have 2,000 experienced and qualified linguists actively working within the system. More interpreters are signing up daily."
The MoJ has shown no indications it will cancel the courts contract, despite growing criticism, but it is considering whether to impose contractual penalties. Until things improve, however, critics fear the chaos will continue - and that many more lives, dependent on the professionalism of court interpreters, may be affected.