6 March 2012
Peter Handcock CBE, Chief Executive, Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) before the Justice Select Committee
Justice Committee - Minutes of Evidence
Q361 Chair: How have you got into a situation that a court had to resort to Google translation because they could not get a Lithuanian interpreter? There are other reported cases.
Peter Handcock: I had not heard that particular story. We let a contract for the provision of interpreter services because, by letting that contract, we were able to deliver both a more efficient and responsive service and a cheaper one. We spent quite a lot of time working through with the contractors on the transition and an implementation path for the new contract. When the contract launched, for quite complicated reasons, the contractor simply did not have enough people and was not able to offer the service, particularly in one or two-and still in one or two-relative minority languages.
In the first week of the implementation of the contract the level of fulfilment against the requirement ran at about 40%, which made life very difficult. As a result of that we immediately reverted large parts of our business to our old arrangements and went back to booking interpreters ourselves. The contractors, having, I think, been slightly taken by surprise by the difficulties, have worked pretty hard to put it right. As we speak, their fulfilment rate is close to 90% from the 40% it was at the beginning. It is partly the process of letting a new contract and putting it in place, but, frankly, we need to do much better at understanding the potential risks before we roll these things out.
Q362 Chair: There were quite a lot of warnings in this House and evidence before the Committee earlier that there may have been an underestimation of the challenges the contract posed.
Peter Handcock: Both within Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and on the part of the contractors we simply underestimated the difficulty of getting the new contract in place.
Q363 Chair: Was the contract structured so that you have sufficient penalty and cancellation provisions at your disposal to deal with this situation?
Peter Handcock: It is. I made it very clear right from the outset that step one was to revert to our old arrangements, simply to roll back. Step two, if the level of performance did not improve very rapidly, would be to withdraw from the contract.
Q364 Karl Turner: On the interpreter issue, what is the problem? I can give you a very specific situation. My wife is a criminal solicitor in Hull. The contract is with a provider based in Leeds. I am not sure why, but I am told that, for whatever reason, the interpreters do not always want to travel to Hull. The local interpreters are not prepared to do the work because the fees are nothing like what they used to receive. Very recently a defendant appeared in Hull magistrates court charged with a shop theft to the value of a few pounds. I think he was Lithuanian. He was remanded in custody for five days. Eventually someone volunteered to interpret for the court. The district judge, who was hearing the case, agreed to accept this young man, who was on work experience with a firm of solicitors. He did not take the oath; he just volunteered and the judge agreed. Eventually the defendant was sentenced by the judge to a day in prison.
The cost of all of that is completely and utterly ridiculous to me. What are you doing about these interpreter contracts? Are you able to deal with that? Are you addressing the issue?
Peter Handcock: Is your point just about the interpreter or that all of that is generally disproportionate?
Q365 Karl Turner: That scenario is just completely mad, in my view. The reality of that is that, if the offender in the police station had been given legal advice and had had access to an interpreter, I suspect it could have been dealt with by way of an 80 quid fixed penalty ticket rather than an appearance in court and five days remanded in custody. The cost of that must run into many thousands of pounds.
Peter Handcock: I agree with you that it seems ridiculous. The availability of the interpreter is a critical problem here. The fact is that the contractors providing this service overestimated the willingness of interpreters to sign up under the terms of a new contract.
Q366 Karl Turner: Is that about the fee, though?
Peter Handcock: There will be a remuneration package.
Q367 Karl Turner: I have to be honest; I have always thought interpreters charge too much money, in truth. It is very often more than I would be charging per hour, even if I was representing the defendant privately. Is it about the money?
Peter Handcock: That is one of the reasons for wanting to put a proper contract in place rather than to be booking individual interpreters as a self-employed work force ad hoc. The idea is that the contract gives us more reliability, and ultimately it will. It will give us a better spread of languages and a better guarantee that we are using interpreters in an integrated way across the system. We started out with an implementation problem because we underestimated the extent to which people would not be prepared to sign up to these new arrangements. In the first couple of weeks after the contract was in place the numbers of people signing up to new contracts went up massively and it is still going up now.
If my memory serves me correctly, we have a problem with three languages where, nationally, the number of translators is not very high. They are Lithuanian, Romanian and Vietnamese. What I have said to the contractors is that they have to solve that problem quickly. The risk is not proportionate to the fulfilment level under the contract. You only need one person, for example, who ought to be deported and who is unable to be deported because there is not an interpreter available for an immigration hearing; or you only need one person for whom the custody time limit has expired and who has to be released unexpectedly on bail because no interpreter is available. I recognise that it leads to this kind of problem and this kind of risk, but I am just about satisfied at a fulfilment rate of 90% that we are making progress towards a decent level of performance. I suspect we are still going to be fingers crossed for another couple of weeks.