The Times, Wednesday 14.3.2012
Court interpreters protest over pay cuts
The justice system is grinding to a halt because since January registered workers refuse to work under new conditions
Angry court interpreters are planning to hold a demonstration outside the Ministry of Justice today as courts across the country grind to a halt because most registered interpreters have been refusing to work since January. The move has been prompted by new arrangements for engaging them, introduced by the Government in an effort to save £18 million per year. The courts used to book interpreters directly, choosing them from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. Under the new system all are meant to be booked through a single agency, Applied Language Solutions (“ALS”), an Oldham based company recently acquired by the outsourcing giant Capita.
Court interpreting is a skilled and stressful business and, apart from interpreters in a few rare languages, most registered interpreters have obtained the prestigious Diploma in Public Service Interpreting, or an equivalent qualification. Not only must they be able to interpret an unpredictable mixture of highly technical and highly colloquial language instantly and accurately, but they must also be able to translate, at sight, any number of documents that are an integral part of any court case. Under the new system ALS planned to use these same interpreters but to pay them a dramatically lower hourly rate and in most cases nothing at all for travel. Unsurprisingly the interpreters have refused to sign up to the new arrangements, preferring in many cases to find other work or even to go onto benefits. The result has been serious disruption to courts all over the country.
Many in the criminal justice system are worrying that in awarding the £300-million four-year contract the Government may have been too ready to accept the claims of ALS, a company specialising in automated computer translation, run by former Dragons Den contestant Gavin Wheeldon.
In its pre-contract tender application ALS had claimed that they would simultaneously cut costs and pay interpreters “above the market rate”. This was the first of their “unique selling points”.
“The benefit of doing this,” they said, “is that we build linguist loyalty, which is essential to ensure we attract the most highly qualified individuals to work on our customer contracts.” They say that they will use only DPSI qualified interpreters for court work.
There is a very sound rule in business, as in life, that if something sounds too good to be true it probably isn’t. Quite how anyone could at the same time pay above the market rate, attract the most highly qualified interpreters and yet still cut costs was not easy to understand. A broad hint was given deep within their pitch that the answer might lie in “increasing the pool of qualified interpreters”. How would the “pool” be increased? ALS proposed to correct “structural flaws within the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting…This will allow more than 1,000 linguists who have failed only the translation element of the DPSI to be used on many interpreting assignments”. In other words, a key element of ALS strategy was to use more than 1,000 wannabe interpreters who had failed a key part of the most widely recognised interpreting qualification. ALS’s claim to be introducing their own computerised “assessment” process has been less than reassuring.
Unlike the canny TV dragons, who declined to lend him a penny, the government appears to have been taken in by this pitch. In the contract ALS promised to “recruit sufficient numbers of interpreters / translators to provide 24 hour cover 365 days per year”.
But so far this has singularly failed to happen. Realising that the situation was, as he put it, “unacceptable”, Government minister Crispin Blunt announced last month that courts would be able, as an emergency measure, to revert temporarily to the old system and book interpreters direct when ALS was unable to deliver and to avoid delays at short notice adjournments.
He said: “There was an unacceptable number of problems in the first two weeks of full implementation of the contract after January 30, following a smoothly implemented new service in the northwest pilot area during the previous two months.
“Close monitoring of the national roll-out has ensured that an action plan to address the problems was in place within two weeks of the new interpreter service commencing on a national basis.”
“This plan includes providing additional staff to deal with bookings, further targeted recruitment of interpreters in key languages and improvements to the call handling and complaints process.”
But interpreters have shown little enthusiasm for extricating ALS and the Government from a mess which they had predicted and many are refusing to accept any bookings. ALS have put the chaos down to “teething problems”, but the contract was signed more than six months ago, so they have had plenty of time to prepare. Meanwhile, in December, they sold the company to Capita for £7.5 million. As the weeks roll by and case after case is adjourned, with all the human misery and wasted costs that this entails, there is at least some good news. A wise government lawyer drafting the contract obviously suspected that ALS’s claims might prove to be over-optimistic and sensibly inserted some escape clauses. The Government has the right to terminate the contract immediately if ALS is not performing its obligations. Alternatively, it can terminate it on three-months notice without giving any reasons.
We have had just a few weeks of what the Government describes as “an unacceptable situation” and others call chaos. Adjourning a case in the Court of Appeal earlier this week, Lord Justice Aikens observed that it would be “monstrous” if a person innocent of a crime had to remain in prison because no interpreter was available. The longer it goes on the worse it will become. Not only cases involving interpreters will be delayed; there will be knock-on effects on all cases. Defendants will be held in custody who should be released. Criminals who should be jail will walk free. Victims will be denied justice. Cases will be brought alleging false imprisonment, miscarriages of justice and breaches of European Convention rights to fair trials and fair detention before trial. It will not take many more weeks before the actual costs to the taxpayer from all this will far exceed the hypothetical £18 million saving that the Government hoped would result from its association with ALS.
So please Mr Clarke, get a grip on the situation before any more taxpayers’ money is wasted, and use your contractual right to extricate us from this mess before the justice system suffers irreparable damage.
Matthew Scott, Pump Court Chambers