21 May 2014
Court translator costs double in a year: Taxpayers' bill now more than £15million after service was outsourced in move branded as 'shambolic' by MPs
The cost to the taxpayer of hiring court interpreters has almost doubled to £15.5million in just one year, according to official figures.
The bill for translators brought in to assist non-English speakers appearing at magistrates or Crown courts for criminal cases soared from £7.9million in 2012.
The figures, uncovered in Freedom of Information responses from the Ministry of Justice, appear to show the rise occurred since services were outsourced to under-fire firm Capita Translation and Interpreting.
They were revealed after the handling of court foreign language services to just one company was branded ‘shambolic’ by MPs amid concerns the change had caused trials to collapse or be delayed.
Farcical episodes that have emerged since privatisation include the case of a man who was charged with perverting the course of justice was instead accused of being a ‘pervert’.
In a burglary case at Snaresbrook Crown Court in east London, a retrial was ordered when it emerged that the Romanian interpreter had muddled the words ‘beaten’ and ‘bitten’.
And in Winchester, a murder trial was brought to a halt when the court interpreter confessed he was an unqualified stand-in for his wife, who was busy.
Standards were allegedly so lax that a director of another translation company was able to sign up his cat Masha as a translator – who was then offered jobs.
MPs on the Commons’ Justice Select Committee were told that a ‘catastrophic’ shortage of interpreters had forced courts to rely on Google Translate, a comparatively crude and time-consuming online translation service.
There are around 11,000 foreign nationals in UK prisons, around 13 per cent of the total prison population, with many needing interpreters at numerous court hearings and appeals.
Courts across England used to rely on local interpreters but in January 2012 the former Ministry of Justice controversially handed a monopoly on translating to a private firm, Applied Language Solutions, in an attempt to cut costs.
The company was then bought by Capita TI amid a wave of criticism from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI), which previously provided courts with language experts.
In the first 18 months of the contract there were 10,000 complaints about the interpreting services it provided.
MPs were told the company had failed to send interpreters to a fifth of trials, sent people speaking the wrong language, or translators who are simply incompetent.
In July last year Lady Butler-Sloss, a retired judge, told the House of Lords there was a massive ‘disruption and delay to criminal trials as a result of serious inaccuracies of court interpreting’.
Five months earlier, the Justice Committee said the privatisation had been ‘shambolic’ and led to cases collapsing and people unnecessarily being remanded in custody.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice confirmed it paid out £15.5million for ‘interpreting and translation services’ to the courts last year compared to £7.9million in 2012.
But he said the FOI response had only identified payments to Capita TI. Because of blunders after the start of the contract, local interpreters were hired on an ad-hoc basis to fill in shortfalls and paid for their services.
The MoJ said the total payments to all interpreters in 2012 exceeded the bill for 2013, although the department said it could not provide documented figures to prove this.
It stated, however, that the new system had seen ‘dramatic improvements’ and that ‘record numbers of booking are now begin made and fulfilled’.
A MoJ source said: ‘During the first year of the contract a lot of things weren’t running brilliantly but since then the whole system has been sorted out.’
Courts Minister Shailesh Vara said privatisation had saved taxpayers £15million in 2012-13, its first year.
He said: ‘The new interpreting contract was introduced to tackle the inefficiencies and inconsistencies in the previous system
‘We have seen dramatic improvements over the life of the contract so far, record numbers of bookings are now being made and fulfilled, and we continue to drive further improvement in performance.’