August 10, 2012 by Helen Warrell
UK court interpreting deal under fire
Justice ministers are under increasing pressure to reconsider a £300m private sector court interpreters’ contract following a catalogue of errors that have caused trials to be cancelled, hearings delayed and defendants misinformed.
It also emerged on Thursday that more than 40 interpreters recruited by Applied Language Solutions, a company owned by Capita, the outsourcing group, had not undergone the required security checks.
Since ALS took over control of all justice interpreting services in January, there have been well over 2,000 official complaints about staff being poorly-trained and turning up long after the appointed times.
Particularly embarrassing incidents include a Crown Court trial being adjourned when an interpreter sent her unqualified husband to work in her place, and owners of a cat that had been signed up as a prank as a “feline language specialist”, being asked by ALS to bring their pet along for a language assessment.
Emily Thornberry, a Labour MP who has been critical of the Ministry of Justice’s management of the contract, has written to the attorney-general in protest at the latest problems. “You can’t play fast and loose with the justice system, and showing such disrespect to the court service is tantamount to contempt of court,” Ms Thornberry said.
She added that given the government’s promise to claw back money from G4S, the security company that breached its Olympic contract, a similar approach should be considered for ALS. “I think [the MoJ] need to look at whether or not this company is fulfilling its contract and if not, the remedy would be to negate the deal or get money back,” Ms Thornberry said.
Marc Starr, a freelance interpreter who used to work for the courts service, told the FT the MoJ was playing a “really dangerous game”.
“Eventually it’s going to get to a point where one of the mistakes an interpreter makes is not spotted, and there will be an unfair conviction that’s based on an interpreting error,” he said.
Only 13 per cent of the 2,300 fully qualified interpreters on the MoJ’s original register work for ALS because many consider the fees, which represent a pay cut of about 60 per cent, are too low.
A spokeswoman for ALS said on Thursday that its performance was “continuing to improve”.
“We are determined to get the service running at full efficiency, providing transparency of opportunity for linguists and fully supporting the MoJ, police and court service,” they said.
The MoJ acknowledged there had been an “unacceptable number of problems” at the start of the new contract but said it had recently seen a “significant improvement” in performance and reduction in complaints.