September 12, 2012 by Frances Gibb
Ministry criticised over interpreter chaos
The Ministry of Justice has been castigated over a £90 million contract to a company to provide courts with interpreters that led to chaos in courtrooms.
In a series of criticisms the National Audit Office today condemns the ministry for allowing the contract to go ahead before the company was ready, leading to a “wholly inadequate” performance.
It says that the ministry’s “due diligence” was inadequate and that it “underestimated” the risks of moving from a regional to a national scheme.
The Ministry also failed to “give sufficient weight” to the concerns and dissatisfaction that many interpreters expressed.
And it allowed the contract, with the company, Applied Language Solutions (ALS) to become fully operational before it had sufficient interpreters assessed and recruited, the NAO says.
As for the operation of the contract, the company’s performance was “wholly inadequate”, leading to missed performance targets and about one fifth of the work in courts and tribunals being done under the old arrangements.
The new system for supplying interpreters in courts in England and Wales was introduced in January this year with a view to saving an estimated £15 million a year.
But months of chaos in the courts ensued as interpreters supplied by ALS either made errors, turned up late or not at all. As a result, trial hearings were adjourned or cancelled and the Government made to pay costs.
Margaret Hodge, MP, who chairs the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, said: “It is appalling that the Ministry awarded ALS a £90 million contract to provide a service essential to ensuring the proper administration of justice that was clearly beyond this company’s ability to deliver.
“The Ministry overlooked its own due diligence process which showed ALS was simply too small to shoulder a contract of this value.”
She added that the ministry had also taken no account “of the resolve of many experienced interpreters not to work for this company.”
Against a target of 98 per cent, ALS supplied an interpreter in only 58 per cent of hearings in February 2012. “This unacceptably poor performance led to courtroom chaos.
“It forced court staff to interrupt their core duties to find interpreters at short notice and triggered a steep rise in the number of abandoned trials.
“Where interpreters were supplied, their quality was at times inexcusably bad. This resulted in poorly translated charges to defendants and incorrect evidence to juries.”
Ms Hodge added that ALS could not even guarantee that interpreters had undergone mandatory Criminal Records Checks.
“My concern is that the resulting delays and hearing cancellations caused distress for victims, defendants and witnesses, additional costs to the taxpayer and damage to the reputation of the justice system.
She called on the Ministry to take immediate steps to strengthen its approach to conducting due diligence for complex contracts.
“ALS performance needs to improve and, importantly, the Ministry must ensure that Capita – who purchased ALS in late 2011 – completes checks on all interpreters working on the contract without any further delay.”
The NAO report says that despite improvements, problems with the quality of some of the ALS interpreters are still reported, the NAO says.