It’s All Greek to Me - The interpreter debacle
A man charged with perverting the course of justice is told he is a pervert. A passer-by, found by chance to speak Lithuanian, is brought in to court to act as an interpreter. And a pet rabbit is registered as a Czech interpreter.
There have been some light-hearted moments since courts and police stations began using Applied Language Solutions, a name now carrying its own intrinsic comedy, on 1 February this year. But the sober reality is that the subsequent shortage of properly qualified interpreters has meant that defendants are regularly remanded in custody while miscarriages of justice are inevitable.
How did it come to this?
Until July last year, the Ministry of Justice had been spending £60m a year providing interpreters across the justice system under the so-called National Agreement. These arrangements allowed the court to book – directly – a freelance interpreter, qualified by the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI), when required. If there were any problems with an interpreter, they would not be booked again.
The Eye of Sauron then fell upon interpreters and the MoJ calculated that savings of £18m could be made by using one company for all interpreters. The Framework Agreement came into being in July 2011 after a 12-month procurement process.
The contract was won by ALS, who already had experience of running a similar scheme on a smaller scale in Oldham. ALS was established in 2003 by Gavin Wheeldon of Dragons’ Den fame, of whom his mother said “My nickname for Gavin was our little Arthur Daley, my dad always said if he didn’t end up behind bars, he’d end up making a fortune.” In December, the company was bought by Capita, indicating that someone could see profit in the enterprise.
These developments probably passed beneath the radar of most criminal solicitors, perhaps already feeling the strain of responding to a torrent of consultations whilst simultaneously holding down paid employment.
Came 1 February 2012, however, and any solicitor dealing with a non-English speaking client was swiftly brought up to speed with the interpreters crisis.
The new scheme has created problems of two kinds. First, ALS cannot cope with the demand for interpreters. The company offers poor wages, and (to their credit) interpreters have remained remarkably united in refusing to work for the company. One consequence is that ALS interpreters frequently attend court very late – if they show up at all. While this is frustrating for solicitors, the real impact is on defendants. For a client who has spent hours in a cell waiting to appear in court and who has no idea what is being said about them – let alone what their fate will be – the situation must be terrifying.
Second, when ALS interpreters do attend court, they are often unable to do their jobs properly. Although the company employs some capable interpreters, a large number of those registered with the agency simply do not have the proficiency to undertake this highly skilled work.
It used to be the case that, unless there happened to be someone in court who could speak the language in question, there was no way to assess an interpreter’s competence. Under the current system, it can be quite clear that an interpreter has fallen short: the look of perplexity on a defendant’s face when words are mistranslated is often ample evidence. It is also alarming to be midway through a bail application only to find that the interpreter has been standing mute next to the defendant throughout, offering moral support perhaps but little else besides.
Such travails mean significantly increased waiting time as the already overloaded court staff struggle to manage. We await the entirely foreseeable appeals and miscarriages of justice, just like those that led Lord Justice Auld to recommend, in 2001, that “urgent steps be taken to increase the numbers and strengthen the quality of interpreters serving the criminal courts and to improve their working conditions.” His recommendations resulted in the implementation of the National Agreement referred to above, now, regrettably, functus officio.
In considering this debacle, one can be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu. Cost-cutting is a necessary evil but the introduction of a nationwide scheme of this sort – with minimal consultation, alongside an inadequate pilot study – characterises a familiar approach to funding the criminal justice system. Whether the proposed savings can be made using ALS remains to be seen, but when the cost of thousands of needless remands in custody, wasted costs applications and appeals is reckoned, it is not far-fetched to suppose that more money, rather than less, will eventually be spent.
But there are lessons that can be learned, not least from the perseverance, tenacity and solidarity shown by the wider pool of interpreters. Indeed, they have already scored a significant victory when, less than two weeks after implementation, the MoJ announced that, “With immediate effect, HMCTS will revert to the previous arrangements for all bookings due within 24 hours at the magistrates’ courts”.
The interpreters have kept up the pressure. While this has meant increased waiting times for solicitors and defendants, it has also highlighted the importance of interpreters to the proper functioning of the courts. They have also managed to maintain a relatively high profile for the topic in the national media, despite the story not being of instant appeal to those without a special interest.
Ultimately, it is as our clients’ advocates that we must support the interpreters. We therefore wish them every success and sincerely hope that their efforts pay off, lest our highly skilled and highly respected cadre of interpreters is lost to the criminal justice system.