Court interpreter farce halts murder trial

Private firm under fire after man is caught standing in for qualified wife who was 'busy'

A murder trial was brought to a sudden halt this week when the court interpreter confessed that he was simply an unqualified stand-in for his wife, who was busy.

The trial had to be temporarily suspended at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds – the latest in a series of farcical episodes since court interpreting was contracted to a private firm earlier this year.

Other recent incidents include a man who was charged with perverting the course of justice being told he was accused of being a "pervert", and solicitors using Google Translate.

The latest problem came to light as Mubarak Lone struggled to explain evidence in the trial of Rajvinder Kaur, who is accused of battering her mother-in-law to death with a rolling pin. He was supposed to be translating for Kaur's husband, Iqbal Singh, but could not even manage to get the oath right for the Sikh witness.

Repeated attempts by the defence barrister Jonathan Fuller, QC, to question the witness at Winchester Crown Court failed as Mr Lone left out key words and phrases. Eventually another barrister, who spoke Punjabi, alerted the court to the problem.

Mr Lone was forced to admit, in the absence of the jury, that it was in fact his wife who had been contracted by Applied Language Solutions (ALS) but that she had other commitments so he had taken her place. He told the judge he had taken the interpreter test set by ALS but had not received his results and was not accredited.

Mr Justice Barnett told the court: "This is extremely unfortunate, to use a classic understatement."

But the problems continued when the trial recommenced with a new interpreter, who also failed to translate the evidence properly. The case was only able to continue with the assistance of Kaur's junior counsel, Sukhdev Garcha.

The trial eventually ended on Thursday when Kaur was convicted and sentenced to life with a minimum term of 11 years.

It is the latest in a string of incidents since February when the Ministry of Justice decided to replace the system under which interpreters were hired ad-hoc with a single private contract, awarded to ALS, in an attempt to slash the £60m annual bill by a third.

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".

In another case a man charged with perverting the course of justice was told he was "a pervert", while a volunteer had to be pulled from the public gallery to translate for a Slovak defendant.

Both the Commons Justice Select Committee and the National Audit Office have confirmed that they may investigate the new private contract.

The Ministry of Justice insisted recently that it had seen "sustained improvement".

A spokesman for ALS said yesterday: "Any complaints are investigated thoroughly and, where necessary, the interpreter is suspended until the investigation is complete. At that point ALS will either remove them from its register, reinstate them or provide further training, as appropriate."

Profile: Dragon's Den star's vision got lost in translation

When Gavin Wheeldon went on Dragon's Den in 2007 with his new translating company, Applied Language Solutions, the Dragons were suitably impressed. None opted to invest their own cash, but Duncan Bannatyne predicted: "I think you'll prove all the Dragons wrong and I think you'll do tremendously well." He was half right. ALS went on to win a £300m contract to provide all translating services for the courts, but has been heavily criticised and blamed for a string of failed and delayed cases. Mr Wheeldon has nonetheless made a fortune, selling ALS in December for £7.5m.