10 March 2013 by Ted Jeory
Judge's fury as justice is lost in translation
Britain’s creaking court system has been forced to use a Polish call centre to help run trials and deportation hearings involving foreign criminals.
The Sunday Express has discovered that staff based in a Krakow office block have been put in charge of booking interpreters for legal proceedings under an outsourcing deal that barristers say is “wrecking” justice.
Trials are collapsing and are routinely delayed due to mistakes centring on a contract between Capita Translating and Interpreting and the Ministry of Justice.
The Government claims the deal saves money but Britain’s top barrister, Michael Turner QC, who chairs the Criminal Bar Association, says the claim is a “con” and that in reality it is a costly “disaster”.
Only four days ago, Judge Richard Bray branded Capita “hopelessly incompetent” after he was unable to sentence and expedite deportation proceedings against a Vietnamese drug king because no interpreter arrived at Northampton Crown Court.
In some trials, interpreters supplied by Capita cannot even speak fluent English, lawyers say.
In one trial a barrister was left to do the translating himself because he happened to speak Romanian.
The contract has been the focus of controversy for more than a year and was condemned as “shambolic” by the Justice Select Committee in January.
A critical report by the National Audit Office in September 2012 failed to mention the Polish link and not even the chairman of the Commons committee, Sir Alan Beith, was aware of it until told by the Sunday Express on Friday.
He said his committee would investigate, adding: “When we’ve had a contract that has been as shambolic as this one has been, we are entitled to know whether having this call centre in Krakow has actually added to the problems.”
The contract, worth £90million over five years, was initially awarded in 2011 to Applied Language Solutions, a company founded by former Dragon’s Den reject Gavin Wheeldon who later admitted he had been ill-prepared for the task.
His recruitment of interpreters was so chaotic that a pet dog was added to the company’s register, while a cat, described by its owner as an expert in “cat language”, was invited to an interview following a joke application.
ALS was taken over at the end of 2011 by Capita and by February last year, requests for interpreters from UK court staff where being routed through Krakow. The 500 Polish staff are meant to match those requests with translators on Capita’s register who are then called or e-mailed with offers of work.
One Capita registered interpreter said communication with Krakow was “not efficient” and that it was sometimes difficult to understand the Poles’ English. She said working for Capita had been a “dreadful experience”.
The company has slashed pay and travel expenses to the point where for many it makes no financial sense to accept jobs. It now faces a significant shortage of translators due to a boycott and it is currently advertising for experts in Akan, Armenian, Malayam, Tigre and Galician.
A survey by Professional Interpreters for Justice umbrella group suggests 81 per cent of interpreters are refusing to work for the company. It says that has led to a lowering of standards, resulting in poor quality interpreters in court.
Michael Turner QC said it risked seeing foreign criminals escape justice. He said Government claims that the contact was saving £15million a year were an “illusion” born of creative accounting.
“This is merely one example of where the Government pretends it is saving money but in reality it is not,” he said. “It is wrecking the system and screw-ups are now endemic. It is a con on the taxpayer and a con on the victims of crime.
“The problem is that interpreters do not turn up or when they do turn up they do not speak the right language or they do not speak English.
“Capita in order to make their profits screw wages to the floor, the good translators refuse to work for that, so they produce translators that cannot translate and cannot speak English, and then because they have not got enough translators on their books they have to outsource, so they spend millions more on outsourcing. So the savings are a complete illusion.
“It costs £110 a minute to run a court room with a jury, so if an interpreter doesn’t turn up for half a day or an hour the oncosts are huge and the Government ignore that. If you want proper interpreting services these are professional people and you have to pay them properly. It is as simple as that.
“All politicians are interested in is producing a headline saying ‘we’ve saved you X millions of pounds’. They are not interested in building a structure which is going to last over time.”
A spokeswoman for Capita said: “Employees in Krakow help Capita Translation and Interpreting to locate interpreters for bookings but have no direct contact with court staff.
“Our interpreters are qualified to at least the minimum standards required to provide services to the Criminal Justice System and many are qualified well beyond this.
“All interpreters have been appropriately vetted in line with the requirements of the framework. Any complaints received about interpreters are investigated thoroughly.”
Regarding the case in Northampton last Wednesday, she said the interpreter had cancelled his appointment two days earlier and Capita had been trying to find a replacement.
Court Minister Helen Grant said Capita has been making “dramatic improvements” but added: “However we are aware further improvement is still needed, we are monitoring the contract on a daily basis and demanding further steps from the contractor.”
Her spokeswoman said it was a matter for Capita where to base its call centre.