24 November 2012 by Daniel Martin
Trials collapse as interpreter shortage cripples the court… whose reliance on Google Translate is ‘putting the public safety at risk’
Dozens of trials have been abandoned because of a ‘catastrophic’ shortage of interpreters which has forced courts to rely on Google Translate, MPs have been told.
Ken Clarke’s shambolic outsourcing of legal translation services is blamed for putting public safety at risk after suspects were released back on to the streets when interpreters failed to turn up.
The National Audit Office has found that between January and March this year, 182 trials in magistrates courts, and an unknown number in crown courts, have collapsed.
In one case in Ipswich in March, the failure of a Lithuanian interpreter to appear meant that Google Translate, a comparatively crude and time consuming online translation service, had to be used.
A trial is declared ‘ineffective’ if it has to be abandoned on day one. It is then rescheduled at huge cost to taxpayers, with some defendants having to be freed on bail in the meantime.
The total of 182 does not include other delays caused by the interpreter shortage, such as trials having to be adjourned day after day. Magistrates, solicitors and translators warn that inadequate standards of interpretation could lead to miscarriages of justice and make British courts the ‘laughing stock’ of the world.
Courts across England used to rely on local interpreters but in January this year the former Justice Secretary controversially handed monopoly on translating to a private firm, Applied Language Solutions.
Magistrates have lodged more than 5,000 complaints against the firm after it failed to send interpreters to a fifth of trials, sent people speaking the wrong language, or translators who are simply incompetent. In one case the defendant’s wife acted as an interpreter.
In another, ALS sent a Romanian to translate instead of a Roma speaker. The full depth of the scandal emerged in submissions to a justice select committee inquiry.
MPs were told that a murder trial went ahead with a beautician translating, even though she did not understand the words ‘friction’ or ‘deterioration’.
Standards were allegedly so lax at the firm that a director of another translation company was able to sign up his cat Masha as an ALS translator – and the cat was offered jobs.
Many police forces also use ALS and in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, three Hungarians had to be released on bail as an interpreter could not be found.
Mr Clarke’s reforms were supposed to save £18 million a year, but a minister admitted in the summer that there will be on savings this year.
A spokesman for Capita, which took over the running of ALS earlier this year, said performance had improved, with more than 95 per cent of bookings now being filled and complaints down.