23 October 2012 by Owen Bowcott
Suspects 'denied fair trial' by shortage of court interpreters
Allegation comes as MPs are told £300m contract awarded to Applied Language Solutions is 'unsalvageable'
Suspects are being needlessly remanded in custody and denied a fair trial because of a severe shortage of qualified court interpreters, a Commons select committee has been told. An investigation into the privatised monopoly awarded to Applied Language Solutions (ALS) covering all courts in England and Wales heard the main professional bodies describe the agreement as "unsalvageable".
The contract, awarded by the Ministry of Justice, came into force at the beginning of February but has been boycotted by most experienced court interpreters because of low rates of pay and poor travel expenses.
Both the public accounts committee (PAC) and the justice select committee are taking evidence this month into the way in which the contract was awarded and how it is being operated following widespread complaints about cancelled court cases and the quality of service. The contract, worth as much as £300m over five years, according to some estimates, was originally granted to ALS. The services conglomerate Capita subsequently bought out the small Huddersfield firm and this summer brought in a new management team to run the business.
Giving evidence to the justice select committee on Tuesday, Richard Atkinson, the chairman of the Law Society's criminal law committee, said: "People are being remanded into custody for no other reason than the lack of interpreters. I would say they are being denied a fair trial process.
"[One] man was remanded on three separate occasions because of lack of interpreters. He spent three nights in custody." Magistrates eventually gave the suspect, with no previous record, bail and sent him to a court 50 miles away where they hoped an interpreter would be available.
"There was a crown court case at the end of September in Leicester," Atkinson added. It had been listed seven months earlier. "On the first day of the trial neither of the Albanian interpreters were available so it had to be put off for a further day.. … Crown court trials cost, at least, thousands of pounds a day."
John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said: "I had an example recently when there was a Russian interpreter. The defendant said something. The interpreter didn't translate it. This person's job was to interpret, not to decide 'that's not important'. It was a substantial [comment] and it did affect the sentence."
Fassenfelt said a survey of magistrates had found that 90% felt the new contract with ALS "did not work well".
Ted Sangster, the chair of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, told the committee that he had experience of other Whitehall departments but had never dealt with the Ministry of Justice. Letters to the former justice secretary, Ken Clarke, had not been answered or even acknowledged. "[The MoJ] are not prepared to listen," he said. "They are arrogant and treat their stakeholders with disdain."
Nick Rosenthal, the chair of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, said: "The rates of pay are so low that qualified professionals are no longer able or willing to work in [such a] system. The framework agreement [of the contract] is unsalvageable."
Madeleine Lee, director of the Professional Interpreters' Alliance, agreed that the contract was unworkable. She told the committee that the company was wrongly recording failures to make bookings as "court cancellations". "Barristers, solicitors, defendants and the general public are unable to lodge complaints because only court employees are allowed to put a complaint in," she explained.
At the PAC hearing last week it emerged that senior MoJ officials had not read the credit report they themselves had commissioned which warned them not to give more than £1m a year of business to ALS.
Margaret Hodge MP, the PAC's chair, described the process as a "shambles". She told officials: "You ask a financial data company for information on whether this is a credible company with which to do business. It advises you: 'Don't do business in excess of £1m,' and you enter into a contract for £42m [a year].. … What were you thinking about?"
Martin Jones, the deputy director of sentencing at the MoJ, replied: "The crucial question for me, as the senior responsible owner, was that there had been a diligent procurement process by procurement professionals, which had recommended that this was the company that was most suitable for this contract."
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "The Ministry of Justice had strong reasons to change the old interpreter booking system, which was inadequate in several respects, and this has been acknowledged by the National Audit Office.
"We have now seen a major improvement in performance, with more than 95% of bookings now being filled, and we are confident the trend is continuing.
"Complaints have also fallen dramatically and we will continue to push for further improvement. We remain confident the contract will make the expected saving of £15m a year for the Ministry of Justice." The hearings continue.