Thursday 01 March 2012 by Madeleine Lee
MoJ must address the chaos
We are just a month into the National Framework Agreement for interpreting and translation services in HM Courts and Tribunals Service. Yet already the much-vaunted savings risk being dwarfed by the cost of adjournments, remands in custody, and applications by defence solicitors for wasted costs.
The media has highlighted court delays and cited pay cuts as the reason why 60% of Registered Public Service Interpreters (RPSIs) refuse to work for Capita subsidiary Applied Language Solutions. Not even HMCTS temporarily reverting to booking established registered interpreters directly at their previous rates, nor Capita’s improved offer to interpreters of increased mileage and £5 per accepted automated booking, have tempted the RPSIs back. The personal cost to non-English speaking defendants and victims is even greater.
ALS simply does not have linguists of the required calibre on its books. And a real danger - of suspects not being informed of their rights, defendants unable to instruct their counsel, collapsed trials and miscarriages of justice - occurs when the potentially unqualified person supplied by ALS actually attends court, acts in the capacity of an interpreter and gets it wrong.
The system now being replaced by the framework agreement was never in need of ‘solutions’. The guidance known as the National Agreement (on Arrangements for the Use of Interpreters, Translators and Language Service Professionals in Investigations and Proceedings within the Criminal Justice System) and the National Register of Public Service Interpreters were the result of decades of policy development. A Home Office Circular (17/2006) and 2007 amendments reinforced the importance of the agreement, ensuring only registered and qualified interpreters could practise in the criminal justice system. By contrast, no comparable in-depth review was conducted prior to civil servants deciding on this drastic departure.
Interpreters and translators don’t like to be viewed as people requiring a ‘solution’. We are assets to the judiciary, upon whom much reliance and responsibility is placed, not least because our work makes us a self-policing profession. Because we are professionals who have demonstrated commitment and application to our chosen profession by becoming qualified, registered and vetted, we hold our collective reputation in high regard. The daily work (until now) of CJS interpreters and translators means that we are the experts to be consulted about the future of our independent and freelance profession.
From the outset the profession sought to establish a dialogue with the Ministry of Justice. Regrettably, the MoJ did not contact interpreters, translators or other stakeholders until April 2011, once plans formulated by successful bidder ALS were already on the table. The present chaos cannot continue and the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance and other organisations representing professional linguists would like discussions with the MoJ to resume.
Immediate action must be taken to ensure non-English speakers receive equal access to justice. The civil servants - and the organisation - responsible for the contract should give up trying to compensate for ALS’s shortcomings with ad-hoc solutions and short-term incentives. The ministry should talk to us instead. Until the framework agreement is withdrawn, HMCTS should extensively and consistently audit the people being sent by ALS to interpret for the courts. Information such as qualifications, level of police vetting, whether they have passed the ALS unaccredited assessment and whether they are appropriately insured (the various undertakings made in the framework agreement) should be checked every time.
If the framework remains, there are grave doubts that the ALS-managed central Legal Interpreters and Translators Register will accord with the requirements of the Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the rights to interpretation and to translation in criminal proceedings, due to be transposed into UK law by 2014.
A more logical development than the retrograde step of creating a register with dumbed-down standards is to legislate for statutory protection of title for legal interpreters. To achieve this, RPSIs need the support of CJS stakeholders like you.
Madeleine Lee is director of the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance