Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 2:17 pm on 18th May 2021.
Baroness Coussins Crossbench 4:22, 18th May 2021.
My Lords, in declaring my interest as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, I highlight an opportunity to improve the criminal justice system for the benefit of victims and their families, witnesses, defendants, court officials and jurors that would enhance the quality of justice and save public money. I hope that impressive list of benefits has grabbed the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson.
The issue is the provision of interpreters in our courts and tribunals. The opportunity is to insert a simple amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In a nutshell, the problem is that the chaotic system used by the MoJ and the Courts & Tribunals Service allows far too many cases of unqualified or underqualified, inexperienced pseudo-interpreters to do such a bad job that, quite apart from damaging the reputation of properly qualified linguists, it can cause mayhem in the courts, resulting in miscarriages of justice, adjourned hearings, defendants remaining in custody and an undermining of trust in an important public service.
The notorious case of Iqbal Begum led to the establishment of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters in the early 1990s. The Court of Appeal had quashed a conviction for murder against a woman when it was realised that the interpreter at her original trial had not known the difference between murder and manslaughter and, though fluent in English and Gujarati, could not speak Punjabi, the language of the accused. In another case the defendant was accused of perverting the course of justice, which the so-called interpreter managed to translate as, “You are accused of being a pervert”. In another, the interpreter’s English was so poor that he could not distinguish between a marital partner and a business partner, which led to the judge assuming the defendant was being evasive.
The national register is an independent, non-profit organisation whose purpose is to safeguard and regulate the quality and professionalism of interpreters. Registration depends on stringent criteria for training, qualifications and experience. There is a code of professional conduct and a disciplinary procedure uninfluenced by any political or commercial interest.
In 2011, however, the MoJ outsourced interpreting to reduce costs. Reduced pay and conditions for interpreters resulted in an exodus of the properly qualified ones and an influx of the unqualified. The MoJ list is not a patch on the national register. You can get on to this list just by having a GCSE pass or a low-level two-week foundation course, or just by being bilingual, even if you have never set foot in a court before. The list is outsourced to a private company and, despite the MoJ’s claim that compliance with targets has been high, the increase in aborted hearings and general dissatisfaction among lawyers and clients alike tell a different story.
The courts are out of sync with other parts of the justice system. The CPS continues to use the national register, and the new flagship Police Approved Interpreter and Translator scheme has blazed a trail for high standards. It respects all parties and, combined with the register, could be a really effective model for the courts too.
We could get all this right very easily. Part 12 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill provides for British Sign Language interpreters to assist jurors. I suggest just adding a new, simple clause to provide for spoken-word interpreters to be appointed only from the national register in order to raise standards, improve justice and save public money. It is ironic that one clause in the Bill creates a new offence for a BSL interpreter intentionally or otherwise to influence the jury. I contend that to continue to allow incompetent, unqualified spoken-word interpreters in our courts is itself, by default, a serious way of influencing the outcome of proceedings in the most negative way possible. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, even though he will not reply to this debate, will indicate that he is willing to meet me to discuss my proposal.
Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department 7:55 pm, 18th May 2021.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, talked about the provision of interpreters and asked to meet my noble friend Lord Wolfson, which he is very happy to do. Court interpreters should be appointed only from the national register. We are absolutely committed to continually improving performance and ensuring the highest standard of language services for those who need them. All interpreters provided to the courts are registered and regularly assessed by the quality assurance provider, the Language Shop, and will be removed from the register if they fail to reach the required standard.