4 May 2016 by Owen Bowcott
Thousands of court cases adjourned due to failures in interpreting services
More than 2,600 court cases have been adjourned over the past five years because of failures in the interpreting service, according to figures released by the Ministry of Justice.
The extent of the problem was confirmed as doubts emerged about the viability of the troubled contract for interpreting services after the outsourcing firm Capita declined to bid for its renewal in October.
A war crimes trial at the Old Bailey collapsed last year and has had to be rescheduled because of problems over the quality of interpreting offered to the defendant, a Nepalese army officer.
The figures for the number of cases rescheduled since 2011, when the new contract paying lower rates came into effect, have been provided by the justice minister Lord Faulks.
In the magistrates courts, 2,524 trials have had to be adjourned because of the lack of an interpreter over the past five years. In the crown court, where costs are far greater, 137 trials have had to be adjourned because of interpreter difficulties. The cumulative expense of the adjournments was not recorded.
Commenting on the failures, the Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesman, Lord Marks QC, said: “It goes without saying that every time an interpreter fails to turn up, either injustice is done, because the case goes on without one, or the case has to be adjourned, leading to delays and a waste of everyone’s time and costs.
“Even with improvement against targets, the number of court cases adjourned owing to the lack of interpreters has remained stubbornly high. As one judge put it, the only just target is 100% attendance. With the next contract the government must ensure effective and efficient attendance of high-quality interpreters at court to enable justice to be delivered.”
Capita, which has held the contract to provide interpreters in England and Wales for the past four years, has been heavily criticised in the past.
Last year it was ordered to pay £16,000 by the most senior judge in the family courts for its “lamentable” failure to provide interpreters seven times in the course of a single adoption case. In 2013, the justice select committee described the manner in which the court interpreting service was privatised as shambolic.
Asked why it had decided not to bid for the main contract after being shortlisted, a Capita spokesperson said: “We took the decision to bid solely for Lot 2 [the more predictable ‘written translation and transcription’ service]. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”
Geoffrey Buckingham, an executive member of the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association, said: “The available pool of interpreters is already limited, and the word is that many now have enough experience to move on to better-paid work. If borne out, then quality will continue to fall.
“The MoJ has not learned any lessons. The team names have changed, but the process is so flawed that one of those shortlisted in December has walked away. Capita Translation and Interpreting recently wrote to their interpreters saying they had taken the ‘strategic decision’ to withdraw from the procurement [process].”
Following Capita’s withdrawal, the two remaining bidders for the main contract are the Leeds-based translation company thebigword and the US firm TransPerfect. Earlier this week, thebigword won a £15m contract to provide telephone and face-to-face interpreting and translation services to UK central government organisations.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are absolutely committed to improving performance and ensuring the highest standard of language services for those who need them.
“Our latest figures show a 98% success rate in 2015 – the highest since the interpreting contract began – with complaints about the service at a record low, down 30% on last year. Since this contract was introduced, we have also spent £38m less on language service fees.”
Interpreters are self-employed and under no obligation to accept job requests. A boycott by interpreters three years ago, in protest at low pay rates, failed to persuade the government to abandon the contract.