'Courtroom chaos': Government accused of endangering justice by using cut-price courtroom interpreters

  • @James_Legge

Britain’s leading translators today accused the government of endangering justice with a cut-price private contract for courtroom interpreters, which is “dangerous to the interests of public safety."

One witness called Ministry of Justice staff “arrogant”, while another branded ministers’ consultation a "nonsultation".

Among other complaints heard by the House of Commons Justice committee were badly-trained staff, unreliable service and poor pay for interpreters.

Applied Language Solutions (ALS) took over providing interpreters for court cases nationally in January 2012, in a five-year deal worth £90 million.

They then overhauled pay and conditions for interpreters, with some complaining they were paid below the minimum wage, causing a number of professional interpreters to quit the court system or leave the profession altogether.

A report published last month by the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that in the contract’s first six months court staff lodged 5000 complaints about ALS, and they only supplied an interpreter for 58% of hearings in February, against a target of 98%.

The report listed a legion of failures during the planning and implementation of the deal, and recommended a complete check of every interpreter working for the company.

Madeleine Lee, director of the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance, told the committee that ALS performs too many functions, responsible for supplying translators, setting their standards and disciplining them.

She said: “It’s its own auditor because it’s reporting its own performance figures on this contract.

“A lot of those functions, particularly the disciplinary function and the regulatory function should be exercised independently.”

Nick Rosenthal, chair of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, said: “There’s every sign that all consultation with the profession was what one colleague has described as a ‘nonsultation’,” a claim backed up by a National Audit Office (NAO) report.

Ted Sangster, chair of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, told the hearing: “I have been absolutely amazed and dismayed about the way in which the Ministry of Justice seeks to deal with its stakeholders.

“They are not prepared to listen. They are arrogant, incompetent, and they treat their stakeholders with disdain.

“The existing situation is unsalvageable. It is dangerous to the interests of public safety.”

Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Select Committee, last month: “It is appalling that the ministry awarded ALS a £90 million contract to provide a service essential to ensuring the proper administration of justice that was clearly beyond this company’s ability to deliver.”

This caused what Hodge described as “courtroom chaos,” compromising communication with defendants, and forcing staff to spend extra time finding suitable interpreters.

Hodge said: “My concern is that the resulting delays and hearing cancellations caused distress for victims, defendants and witnesses, additional costs to the taxpayer and damage to the reputation of the justice system.”

ALS has since been taken over by Capita, and on October 9 was re-named Capita Translation and Interpreting.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "The Ministry of Justice had strong reasons to change the old interpreter booking system, which was inadequate in several respects, and this has been acknowledged by the National Audit Office.

"We have now seen a major improvement in performance, with more than 95% of bookings now being filled, and we are confident the trend is continuing.

"Complaints have also fallen dramatically and we will continue to push for further improvement. We remain confident the contract will make the expected saving of £15m a year for the Ministry of Justice."