14 January 2013
Poor interpretation services will lead to miscarriages of justice
The decision to outsource interpreting services to a single provider which is both commercial agent and regulator continues to present threats to the administration of justice, says Jessica Myint Thinn
The decision taken by the Ministry of Justice in February 2012 to outsource its court interpreting services to a sole contractor, Applied Language Solutions (ALS), using the new Framework Agreement (FWA) remains a concern. Almost a year down the line initial concerns have escalated as the service supplied by ALS under the FWA has continually failed to provide the quality interpreting services required.
Previously interpreters used in court cases had to be registered with the National Register for Public Service Interpreters (NPRSI) – which involves fulfilling rigorous entry criteria with regards to qualifications and experience, and committing to professional standards by signing its Code of Conduct. This is no longer the case under the new system.
Disruption and delay
The FWA divides interpreters into three tiers. While NRPSI registered interpreters hold top-tier status, interpreters from the other two tiers are used in circumstances such as legal proceedings and court cases where only highly qualified interpreters should be engaged. The supply of unqualified, inexperienced and incompetent interpreters by ALS has led to disruptions and delays to court cases resulting in additional costs for the judicial system and taxpayer.
In addition, the service provided by ALS – recently acquired by Capita Group – is reliant on an electronic booking system that is not fit for purpose, resulting in a failure to supply interpreters and interpreting assignments being inefficiently allocated, thereby preventing the justice system from operating efficiently.
As the sole provider for the MoJ the ALS also has monopoly status and control over recruitment, pay, price, quality and other factors preventing fair competition and affecting the working conditions of interpreters. This has led to a number of experienced registered professionals leaving the sector and others refusing to work for ALS, further driving down the quality of service provided to the courts.
The interpreting profession has been united in its concerns about the outsourcing of court interpreting services to a single provider under the FWA from the outset and consistently expressed these. Its calls for an independent appraisal of the new system, coupled with the consistently poor service delivered by ALS and the FWA, led to investigations by the National Audit Office (NAO) and Public Accounts Committee in the second half of 2012, as well as the current Justice Select Committee inquiry into the provision of interpretation and translation services supplied by ALS.
In response to these inquiries NRPSI requested all relevant sector participants and stakeholders be involved in the review, and highlighted the critical importance of not only using registered interpreters who are appropriately qualified and are accountable, but the vital role that an independent regulator plays in maintaining standards and ensuring the public has equal access to public services.
The Public Accounts Committee has already published its report, stating ”The Ministry did not conduct thorough due diligence checks on ALS before signing the FWA” and supporting the need for change. The publication of the Select Committee report is expected shortly, the results of which will impact on the way the judicial system operates. Without pre-empting what will be in the report, it is clear that action needs to be taken to maintain and protect the standards of interpreting services for the good of the justice system and to safeguard the public.
NRPSI recognises there were problems with the previous system for appointing individual interpreters and understands the need for public services to improve efficiency and reduce expenditure while ensuring taxpayers receive value for money. However, it also believes savings should not be made at the expense of quality and public safety – both of which are threatened by the framework agreement and ALS contract.
Threat to justice
As it stands, the current arrangement is a threat to justice. The ALS cannot fulfil the roles of both commercial agent and independent regulator. The two need to be separate and autonomous if standards are to be maintained and healthy competition promoted.
An independent regulator is vital to the establishment of a sustainable interpreting profession. With the soon to be introduced European Directive 2010/64/EU on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings, requiring each member state “to establish a register or registers of independent translators and interpreters who are appropriately qualified”, the necessity of NRPSI as the UK’s independent register and regulator comes into sharp focus.
Unless changes are made a situation similar to the one that gave rise to NRPSI may occur. An interpreter engaged for a murder trial was not trained and did not speak the same dialect as the accused, leading to a serious miscarriage of justice. This and similar cases led to a review by Lord Woolf and his report ‘Access to Justice 1996’, after which the NRPSI was established.
Issue: Vol 157 no 02 15-01-13
Article Author: Jessica Myint Thinn is executive director of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) (www.nrpsi.co.uk )