1 November 2016 by Ewan Palmer
MoJ hopes for fresh start after end of 'shambolic car crash' of a court translation contract
In August 2011, Marie Adamova filled out an online application for a court translator role with the government-backed private firm Applied Language Solutions (ALS).
ALS was happy to respond, sending out more than a dozen emails notifying how she had been "identified as an interpreter" – a position that's an essential aid for anyone who is brought before the criminal justice system but does not speak English as their first language – and invited for an assessment.
The ease with which Adamova appeared to have been fast-tracked into a career of court translating did not phase her. This is because she wasn't applying for the role herself – the Czech national had already worked for five years as an interpreter. In fact, she was not even submitting her own details into the system.
The person who was so easily registering as a linguist on the site was her pet rabbit, JaJo.
"It's ridiculous," she said in 2012. "I wasn't surprised he was accepted because I knew they were not going to check anything.''
The mini act of subterfuge involving Jajo the rabbit and Adamova was just one of a number of issues to haunt the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) over the upcoming years after it awarded a multi-million pound contract for supplying translators and interpreters across the justice system to the private firm.
The issues with the service hit crisis point by the end of 2012, after it emerged the number of trials that had to be adjourned in England and Wales due to a lack of an interpreter doubling compared to the previous year.
According to the National Audit Office's report into the contract, court staff made more than 5,000 complaints during the first six months of its operation, with many specifically being about the quality of interpreters provided.
In February 2012, a Polish interpreter was reported to have turned up to Basildon court not knowing what an oath was and seemingly unaware of legal language or British protocol in the courts.
In July of that year, a murder trial in Winchester was halted for a day after a man provided by Capita TI to translate Punjabi for a key witness confessed he was actually a stand-in for his wife, who was busy at the time.
One court was said to have resorted to Google Translate because a Lithuanian interpreter could not be found and one Russian suspect was forced to spend two days in custody after his interrupter failed to arrive for a Saturday hearing, meaning his bail application was postponed until the following Monday.
In February 2015, the MoJ issued a £16,000 fine to the contract supplier after a requested Slovak interpreter was not provided for an adoption case on seven different occasions.
In subsequent years, the court translations service in the UK was described by MPs as both a "car crash" and "nothing sort of shambolic", leading to three separate inquiries following an almost unprecedented number of complaints, delays of trials and suspects unnecessarily spending time in jail as interpreters failed to turn up to court, or were woefully inadequate once they did arrive.
Qualified interpreters looked and said 'this isn't for me'
In August 2011, the MoJ signed a four-year framework agreement with ALS, a "small company making quite a substantial loss" at the time, to supply all linguistic services to courts in England and Wales. A few months later, in December, ALS was acquired by public-services provider Capita – who had not previously worked in the translations service – and renamed its new division Capita Translation and Interpreting (Capita TI).
On 30 January 2012, the largest of those four agreements signed with ALS, worth an estimated £90m over five years, became operational. The new framework replaced the previous system governed by a National Agreement, in which the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) selected appropriate interpreters who passed their criteria, including qualifications, hundreds of hours of experience and full Criminal Records Bureau disclosures.
The government department opted for a change to streamline what they considered a "time-consuming and inefficient" service, as well as save an estimated £12m to £15m a year in costs. According to a damming report by the Justice Committee in February 2013, this desire for change went ahead despite there being no "fundamental problems with the quality of services" provided by NRPSI.
One of the ways the MoJ planned on doing this was to cut the "overgenerous" rate of pay for interpreters.
Under the previous contract, translators would receive a minimum three-hour flat rate of £85 for a court appearance, as well as being reimbursed for travel time.
Under the Capita TI contract, the rates were cut to between £16 and £22 per hour, with reduced travel expenses.
The change meant that if an interpreter had to make a two-hour round trip for a brief court appearance of under an hour, a top level interpreter could have earned less than £10 for a day's work.
These cuts in pay and conditions for the interpreters resulted in a mass boycott of Capita TI by experienced and qualified linguists who felt the "phenomenal reduction" in pay was unworkable, kick-starting the troubles in the courts that the company never fully recovered from.
Prior to the start of the new contract officially launching in February 2012, the MoJ estimated it would need access to 1,200 interpreters to meet its requirements. However, as a result of the boycott, when the contract went live Capita TI only had 280 interpreters ready to work under the terms of the contract.
The boycott meant Capita TI were forced to frequently send out severely underqualified interpreters to court cases – if one got sent at all – meaning the quality of interpreting in the courts suffered dramatically.
In the entire time of having the court translators contract, Capita TI has only managed to meet its 98% target of successfully supplying interpreters in court, tribunal or family cases once, according to figures released by the MoJ every quarter.
Ted Sangster, chair of the NRPSI, told IBTimes UK: "Our view at the time, having been involved in the consultation, was we could see the value and the sense from the MoJ's point of view in trying to improve the efficiency of the administration and reduce the costs, so in principle getting an agency to do it on their behalf made business sense.
"What our concerns were, and we made this point at the time – and it later turned out to be justified – was the effect of the quality of interpreting provision.
"So many of the highly qualified interpreters looked and said 'this isn't for me' and decided to not seek their employment from Capita."
Capita TI also introduced a three-tiered system for those hoping to work as an interpreter, with the rate of pay depending on which tier they fell into based on their qualifications and experience.
Only those ranked in the top tier were meant to be suitable for important court and tribunals services. However, the mass boycott meant the company frequently had to dip into the lower tiers for workers.
Sangster said that the fact Adamova's rabbit was able to get on the register for interpreters indicated "a degree of desperation" for Capita TI in looking for suitable people. "At the time they were sort of scraping for anyone they can get hold of. They didn't do sufficient due-diligence in the way in which they were recruiting some of these people – or animals in this case."
According to the Justice Committee's 2013 report: "There was significant concern revealed in the consultation process that quality standards could be diminished by the imposition of a tiered system to enable a wider pool of interpreters, and by the introduction of lower levels of pay. This suggests to us that the Ministry of Justice was determined to pursue the new arrangements in the face of evidence that there would be some reduction in the quality of language services to the courts."
The MoJ responded to the criticism in December 2014. The statement said: "The previous system for delivering language services to MoJ was complicated, poorly coordinated and did not provide value for money. Performance in the early part of the new contract was not of a satisfactory level. However, we have seen dramatic improvements over the last two years and we are continuing targeted work and investment to further improve performance to deliver value for the taxpayer."
Five years later, the contract to provide face-to-face interpretation, as well as written translation and transcription services, has been awarded to international language services company Thebigword for a reported £120m.
Elsewhere, a second company, The Language Shop, was also awarded a separate contract for independent quality assurance, something Sangster described as a "being a big step forward" as previously it was done in-house by Capita TI. "So when complaints again Capita TI were made," Sangster explained, "Capita investigated them and Capita undertook whatever actions they determined were necessary."
Larry Gould, chief executive of Thebigword, said he is confident there will not be a repeat of what occurred previously with Capita TI.
Speaking to IBTimes UK, Gould said: "In my view the reason ALS won the contract was because the pricing was quite low – which is the reason why a lot of people win contracts."
When asked if the company is prepared for the challenges and pressures of the court translation contract, Gould said: "We had hoped to win this contract five years ago, and to be honest, we've spent five years preparing to win it this time. What motivated us [after missing out the first time around] was that we wanted to put ourselves into a position that they [MoJ] can't refuse us again.
"The difference is that we would never consider a reduction in what the linguists get. In fact, not only are we not reducing pay, we're increasing conditions."
One of the ways the Thebigword is hoping to improve the service is to create courses for people to understand the type of environment they'll be involved with and "to also put them off if they don't like it" as part of a bid to ensure only suitable interpreters are on the system.
Gould added: "A linguist may have linguistic skills of the highest level, but what they don't sometimes have [is the ability] to deal with very, very traumatic situations. They're dealing with people who have been tortured, they're dealing with people who have been raped and in those environments it's sometimes hard for them to cope."
A Capita TI spokesperson said: "We've worked closely with the MoJ over the last four years to deliver the court interpreters contract. Following our decision not to re-tender for the contract, we have engaged with the new provider and the Ministry to support the transfer of services."
A MoJ spokesperson added: "It is vital that victims, witnesses and defendants understand what is happening in court to ensure justice is done.
"Historically, the previous system where interpreters were booked by individual courts was costly and inefficient. Since we replaced this complaints are low and we have saved £48m for the taxpayer. We look forward to building on this success under the new contracts".