Friday 02 March 2012 by Catherine Baksi
Court clerk turns to Google to fill interpreting gap
A court has resorted to web translation to communicate with a defendant as the fiasco over the government’s new interpreting regime continues to disrupt hearings.
Ipswich criminal solicitor Andrew Cleal told the Gazette that the clerk at Ipswich Magistrates’ Court was this week forced to handwrite in Lithuanian details of a defendant’s next hearing after finding the words with Google Translate.
Cleal said that the court had been unable to get a Lithuanian interpreter via the central service run by contractor Applied Language Solutions to translate proceedings for his client who had been charged with shoplifting. ‘We hope he understood, but as none of us spoke Lithuanian, we can’t be sure,’ Cleal said.
He added: ‘This matter should have been dealt with by midday, but I didn’t get out of court until 4.30pm as we were waiting for an interpreter. I will be billing the Legal Services Commission for my waiting time.’
This is one of numerous allegations received by the Gazette from solicitors about problems that have ensued since the new regime began on 1 February.
Mike Jones, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said: ‘We have had reports from all around the country of ALS not being able provide interpreters. I’ve been told of incidents in Sevenoaks, Colchester, Leeds, London, Kent, Lincolnshire and Sheffield.’
Defendants have been inappropriately remanded in custody or released on bail rather than having their case concluded, Jones said.
‘In one case a Romanian defendant was sent from London to Salisbury and kept in prison overnight at Winchester prison because no interpreter was available. The next day the defendant was sent to Chippenham Magistrates’ Court. ALS was not able to confirm that they would be able to send an interpreter, so the court reverted to contacting an interpreter on the national register, who attended in the afternoon.’
Jones said: ‘The lack of interpreter meant a substantial amount of money was wasted transporting the defendant, keeping him in custody and paying the national register interpreter.’
He said he had also heard allegations that, where ALS had provided interpreters, they were not sufficiently competent. ‘These are very serious problems. The criminal justice system cannot function without high-quality interpreters in attendance. In some areas of the country, where high numbers of defendants do not speak English, the impact is even more severe,’ he said.
Jones added: ‘These problems will undermine initiatives like Stop Delaying Justice, where the expectation is that the defendant will be able to indicate a plea, and where it is a not guilty plea, deal with mode of trial and complete the cases management exercise on the first appearance.’
A Ministry of Justice spokesman reiterated comments given to the Gazette earlier this week, saying: ‘There have been an unacceptable number of problems in the first weeks of the contract and we have asked the contractor to take urgent steps to improve performance.
‘ALS has put measures in place to resolve these issues. Courts have been told they can temporarily book short-notice appointments using the previous system, to enable the new contract to bed in.’
He added: ‘We remain committed to ensuring the rights and needs of those who require interpreters are safeguarded as well as ensuring value for taxpayers across the justice system, and will continue to monitor the system on a daily basis.’
The MoJ agreed a five-year contract with ALS in August 2011 to provide translation and interpreting services to agencies across the criminal justice system. The contract began on 1 February 2012 and is intended to save £18m a year from the £60m annual budget spent on interpreting. In December 2011, ALS was acquired by services firm Capita.
ALS has been asked for further comment, after insisting earlier this week that resources had increased ‘considerably’ in the previous fortnight.
An ALS spokeswoman said on Tuesday: ‘Assigning qualified and experienced linguists to assignments and insisting on continuous professional development, while reducing operational inefficiencies, remains the focus of our service.’