Friday 2 March 2012 - Owen Bowcott and Tom Midlane
Interpreters stay away from courts in protest at privatised contract
Linguists unhappy with Applied Language Solutions' deal with Ministry of Justice, which has seen their rates almost halved
As many as 1,000 interpreters are boycotting a privatised contract to supply linguistic services to all English and Welsh courts, resulting in postponed hearings, suspects being released and compensation claims.
The revolt within the professional community against cut-price employment terms imposed by Applied Language Solutions is spreading amid criticism of the quality of interpreting supplied by the Oldham-based firm.
The five-year deal with the Ministry of Justice, which began on 1 February, is intended to save £18m a year out of an annual budget of £60m. ALS also has exclusive contracts to supply translation services to the London 2012 Olympics and a number of NHS trusts.
Within the courts, solicitors, magistrates and judges have complained of disruption and warned about the danger of miscarriages of justice. In some cases suspects have had to be released when no interpreters were available; in others people have spent extra time in detention. During one hearing at Sandwell magistrates court, a solicitor had to translate proceedings into Punjabi for a client because there was no interpreter.
The justice minister, Crispin Blunt admitted in the Commons that there were "an unacceptable number of problems in the first two weeks of full implementation of the contract". The Ministry of Justice said it was monitoring the situation on a daily basis.
ALS was bought by the public services provider Capita last December. Two weeks later, after problems emerged, the department authorised courts to bypass the centralised system for urgent cases until further notice, allowing them to hire their own interpreters without going through the company.
According to interpreting organisations' estimates, about 60% of the 2,300 people on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters are refusing to work for ALS. Last week there were protests outside Manchester's crown courts. Interpreters claim hourly rates have been slashed and that they are being offered minimal travel allowances.
Ian Kelcey, former chair of the Law Society's criminal law committee, described the situation as "little short of a debacle". He added: "The problem with ALS is that the government decided to do it and chose someone who probably can't provide the capacity. We are not sure they are using interpreters of a requisite standard."
Freelance interpreters, who condemn the contract as a monopoly, have accused ALS of using interpreters inexperienced with court work. But ALS says it only uses "qualified interpreters who have been assessed and demonstrated evidence of suitable experience and linguistic skills".
David Evans, chairman of the Magistrates' Association in Lincolnshire, where scores of cases have been postponed, said: "There have been instances of interpreters just not turning up. We have had people arrested but because there's no interpreter they have had to be released. Some have been arrested and released several times for that reason. It's not good for justice.
"I'm getting stories about it every time I speak to magistrates. No one is happy with this. I understand interpreters have not been offered very attractive terms. I have heard of an interpreter being sent up from Hertfordshire; that can't be cost-effective if the contract is supposed to save money."
Ken Sheraton, a district judge in Peterborough, said he was unable to go ahead with two cases in one day because interpreters failed to materialise. In the first week of the ALS contract, 12 cases had to be adjourned in the city's magistrates court.
Geoffrey Buckingham, chair of the Association of Police and Court Interpreters, said applications were being made by solicitors for wasted costs orders against ALS so that their clients would not have to pay extra for cases that were delayed or postponed.
In a letter to the MoJ, he complained about interpreters receiving repeated calls. "Hardly a day goes by without colleagues [receiving] unwanted and unsolicited approaches despite not being registered with the contractor [ALS]." Names of interpreters may have been obtained without permission, he suggested, raising questions about data protection.
At Snaresbrook crown court in east London, Judge Murray Shanks, considering an application for a wasted costs order against ALS for failing to inform the court that an interpreter would not be available, found that it "was serious misconduct" and did "cause waste" when the case had to be adjourned.
But he declined to award costs because the incident occurred in the first days of the contract and represented "teething" difficulties. He added: "There will be problems with this contract if the point of contact is with a call centre." Counsel for ALS said that the company had asked the MoJ not to introduce the service across the whole country immediately.
The shadow justice minister, Andy Slaughter, said: "Interpreters are a highly skilled and essential part of the justice system. This scheme sacrifices that in favour of unachievable savings and private profit. We questioned [the justice secretary] Ken Clarke in November about the business model of this contractor but he ignored our warnings. The result is confusion and delay in the courts, the potential for serious miscarriages of justice, huge wasted costs and risks to public safety. People are being wrongly remanded in custody for lack of information and courts are grinding to a halt."
Syed Amjad Ali, 53, of Reliance Translations, who organised the Manchester demonstration, said: "Interpreters were getting £30 an hour before, for a minimum of three hours, now they offering them £16-£22, no travel for the first hour and petrol of 20p per mile.
"Interpreters are not going to work on these low rates and this is going to affect the quality of interpretation. Three Romanian interpreters were booked by ALS in Manchester city magistrate court and no one turned up, so the trial has been postponed.
"At an immigration tribunal in Manchester, a Czech au-pair came. She had never been in court before and she asked us: 'How do you address the judge? Is it your highness or your excellency?' That is the kind of people they are sending, despite the fact their contract clearly states they will use only qualified interpreters. We are seriously concerned about the welfare and risk to the witnesses and defendants."
Unite, the union that represents many interpreters, has raised as an example of potential problems caused by inadequate interpreting the case of Iqbal Begum, a woman who killed her husband after years of domestic abuse. Only after the trial and her conviction for murder in 1981 did it emerge that the court interpreter did not speak her language. She had no idea about the difference between murder and manslaughter. Begum was eventually released on appeal but took her own life.
Locog, the London Olympics organising committee, confirmed that ALS would be translating brochures and guides for athletes, the media and officials. "We have been working with them since 2010," a Locog spokesman said. "All is going well." That contract is worth less than £10m.
In an attempt to recruit more interpreters, ALS has begun offering more favourable terms in recent days. "The proposed cost reductions are based on a combination of operational efficiencies and the removal of some of the financial payment terms that had become extremely costly," said a spokesperson.
"We have consulted with linguists and listened to their feedback regarding the new payment terms and the fact that court case durations are often much shorter than the original booking time. As a result we have increased payments and travel expenses to combat some of this loss of earnings for interpreters."
ALS, which admits cases have been cancelled, said it worked with "hundreds of public sector customers, providing a range of language services. We currently deliver on our commitments to all of these customers." A spokesperson added: "We investigate, in full, any customer complaints that we receive."
Asked about calls to interpreters who did not wish to work with ALS, the company said: "If a suitable linguist cannot be located within our database for an assignment then we will explore other public databases to identify qualified freelance linguists and offer them the opportunity to work with us."
An MoJ spokesperson said: "There have been an unacceptable number of problems in the first weeks of full implementation of the contract and we have asked the contractor to take urgent steps to improve performance. We remain committed to ensuring the rights and needs of those who require interpreters are safeguarded, and are monitoring the system on a daily basis."
Under the contract, financial penalties can be imposed for failures to deliver services.
Applied Language Solutions was founded by Gavin Wheeldon in 2003. His ambition, stated on the company website, is to become "the biggest language provider in the world".
Wheeldon, now 35, began working evenings on telephone sales at the age of 14. After joining a language translation company, he launched his own firm out of the back bedroom of his home.
He appeared on the BBC2 business programme Dragon's Den, trying to negotiate a loan for £250,000 to boost his start-up company. He failed to persuade the panel to back him.
ALS has developed machine translation software to speed up the process of transcribing documents, with customers being offered the option of "light" or "heavy" edit for linguists to check grammar, meaning and spelling.
The company, based in Oldham, says it has interpreters available to work in 170 languages. It has 130 full-time staff in the UK, India, Europe and the US. In 2011, its annual turnover was £10.6m.
In interviews, Wheeldon has said he prefers driving Porsches to Ferraris. In 2008 his mother, Denise, told the Oldham Advertiser: "My nickname for Gavin was our little Arthur Daley, my dad always said if he didn't end up behind bars he'd end up making a fortune!"