5 August 2012
Interpreters in courts: lost in translation
In order to deliver savings the Ministry of Justice wants, pay rates and travel expenses have been cut
When he overturned the conviction of Paul Chambers last week, the lord chief justice ruled that Twitter users "are free to speak not what they ought to say, but what they feel". The right to a fair trial, and for those called to it to speak and be understood by the judge and jury, is every bit as vital as the right to make a dodgy joke on Twitter. Some of the people summoned to court will not be fluent in English, which is why the courts rely on competent interpreters to help them.
Since February a company called Applied Language Solutions, recently bought by Capita, has enjoyed the exclusive right to supply interpreters to courts in England and Wales. In order to deliver the savings the Ministry of Justice wants, ALS cut interpreters' pay rates and travel expenses. Hundreds of them refused to sign up to the new regime. Unsurprisingly, ALS made what justice minister Lord McNally has described as a "very poor start", failing even to supply a court interpreter in 19% of cases. The no-show rate has since fallen to 10%, but the quality of interpreting – which the MoJ does not measure – continues to attract complaints from judges, magistrates, lawyers and the witnesses and defendants themselves.
Hearings have been postponed and abandoned, at predictable cost; in one murder trial last month, a bogus interpreter turned up at Winchester crown court because his wife was busy. Indeed, one qualified interpreter claims to have registered her dead dog with ALS in March. He failed to turn up to his assessment but was subsequently emailed a job offer. So loud have the complaints become that the Commons justice committee has launched an inquiry into why ALS was awarded the contract and what is being done to rectify the problems. The company stands to receive £300m for the five-year monopoly on providing interpreting services, though Lord McNally admits the MoJ will not even save £12m from its £60m interpreting budget this year. Few deny that the previous system for hiring interpreters, which was ad hoc and sometimes disorganised, left a lot to be desired.
But the shambles that has replaced it is not just an indictment of the government's penchant for outsourcing complex work. It reveals a shamefully cavalier attitude to the criminal justice system. "We are the client, and we do not intend to pay good money for a shoddy service," Lord McNally told the Lords, confident that the government will not be in breach of a European Council directive due to come into force next year that assures citizens of the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings. ALS, whose founder left last month to join an events company, should now thrash out a fair deal with qualified interpreters – or expect a damning verdict when its failings are fully exposed in parliament.