Plan to cut spending on court interpreters leads to farce

Rethink prompted after solicitors resort to Google Translate to understand their clients

A defendant dubbed a "pervert" by mistake, a rabbit applying to be a Czech language specialist and solicitors using the Google Translate website to understand their clients: the debacle surrounding court interpreters has had its amusing moments.

Now the situation has apparently become so serious that both the Commons Justice Select Committee and the National Audit Office have confirmed that they may investigate the new private contract.

In February, the Ministry of Justice decided to replace the ad hoc system under which interpreters were hired as and when needed. They hoped a single private contract with Applied Language Solutions (ALS) would slash the £60m annual bill by a third.

The decision led to a boycott by many interpreters, outraged at what they described as "woefully inadequate" wages from ALS, which is owned by the support services company Capita. The result has been a host of adjourned trials and some that have collapsed. A retrial was ordered three days into a burglary case at Snaresbrook Crown Court in east London when it emerged that the Romanian interpreter had muddled the words "beaten" and "bitten".

Judge David Radford, who presides at Snaresbrook, said recently that some cases had been "badly affected".

In April, the barrister Andrew Dallas said it might be quicker for him to learn Czech when an interpreter failed to turn up at Bradford Crown Court to translate for his client, who was accused of attempted murder.

In another case, a Vietnamese translator was told to make a 560-mile round-trip from Newcastle for an eight-minute hearing at South-East Suffolk Magistrates' Court. Solicitors at the court in Ipswich complained that they were sometimes forced to use the internet to translate.

Neil Saunders, who was defending a Vietnamese client accused of growing cannabis, said no translator turned up at four previous hearings. "Farcical is not the right word. It's actually a tragedy," he said.

In other examples, a man charged with perverting justice was told he was "a pervert", while a volunteer had to be pulled from the public gallery to translate for a Slovak defendant. To make a point, a Czech interpreter, Marie Adamova, applied to register her rabbit, Jajo, with ALS. He was promptly sent a dozen emails by the company.

Last week, the National Register of Public Service Interpreters told the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke: "The concerns we referred to in February have not gone away. Indeed, the position now appears to be worsening almost daily, to the detriment of both professional interpreters and, equally importantly in our view, to the efficient and fair administration of public service across most of the justice sector."

A spokesman for ALS said yesterday: "ALS is happy to co-operate fully with any review though has not, to date, been approached on that basis by any of the bodies mentioned."

The Ministry of Justice insisted: "We have now seen a sustained improvement in performance. There are now only a tiny handful of cases each day when an interpreter job is unfilled.

"Disruption to court business and complaints have reduced significantly. Close to 3,000 interpreters are now working under this contract."

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