15 November 2012 by Alex Varley-Winter
Government gags magistrates over interpreter ‘fiasco’ in courts
Magistrates have been gagged in an attempt to conceal embarrassing details of problems with court interpreters following privatisation of translation services in England and Wales.
Exaro can reveal that the government clampdown has prevented magistrates from supplying crucial data to an inquiry into translation services for courts, which is being held by MPs on the House of Commons justice committee.
Court clerks have also been banned from expressing their opinions on the privatised services.
The justice committee is holding an inquiry after repeated reports of problems since Applied Language Solutions (ALS) became the ministry’s sole contractor for translation services in courts in February.
Peter Beeke, chairman of Peterborough Magistrates court, told Exaro that he had been “forbidden” from providing data to the committee.
The senior magistrate said that he had made a “formal request” to be allowed to provide the committee with monthly reports that he receives on translation services.
But at a meeting with local chiefs in the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), an agency of the Ministry of Justice, he was “formally” told that he could not send copies of the reports to the committee.
He wrote to the committee to explain the position: “As Bench chairman, I receive a monthly report of ALS failures. HM Courts and Tribunal Service has specifically forbidden me from passing that data to this inquiry.”
Magistrates are, however, permitted to give their opinions on the interpreting services. Beeke wrote: “Bearing in mind that I am not allowed to quote in precise detail, the numbers [of problems] remain at an unacceptable level.”
“Magistrates have to put up with this poor service, as do defendants, prosecutors and defence solicitors, and we are powerless to do much about it.”
He warned the committee about relying on statistical reports from Whitehall, saying: “I am told that there is a new logging system for ALS and other service-provider failures. This will only record the amount of court time lost due to such failures.
“This will seriously understate the real cost, but will look good when Whitehall reports to Parliament. You should regard such reports with the greatest scepticism. It will not show extra costs for prosecutors, defence lawyers, secure transport services and custody costs.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said that statistics on language services are collated centrally “to ensure impartiality, objectivity and integrity, among other requirements.”
The ministry had “strong reasons” to change the system for supplying interpreters, he said. “We remain confident the contract will make the expected saving of £15 million a year for the Ministry of Justice.”
In August last year, the ministry gave ALS the contract to provide all interpreting services for courts in England and Wales. It was part of a ‘framework agreement’ across the justice sector worth £168 million over four years.
Capita Group, the biggest supplier of outsourcing services in the UK, bought ALS last December for £7.5 million, with a possible further £60 million depending on performance over four years. Since October, ALS has been trading under the name Capita Translation & Interpreting.
But the interpreting services have been dogged by problems. A poll in March showed that nine out of 10 court interpreters were refusing to work for ALS, leading to what they see as a fiasco in the supply of translation services in the UK’s criminal-justice system.
A spokesman for the company said: “Our interpreters are qualified to the standards required to provide services to the criminal-justice system,” adding, “Complaints have also fallen dramatically and we shall continue to push for further improvement.”
Klasiena Slaney, director of the Society of Official Metropolitan Interpreters, which represents court and police translators, told Exaro: “It is horrendous what is going on in terms of gagging.”
“Properly trained and qualified interpreters contribute to safeguarding human rights. There needs to be an increased recognition of the standing of the profession. Without this, the existing problems are likely to be perpetuated.”
Geoffrey Buckingham, chairman of another body representing translators in the criminal-justice system, the Association of Police and Court Interpreters, added: “The amount of money that is being wasted in ancillary costs is colossal.”