The Guardian: More trials being disrupted over interpreter failings
Inability to provide sufficient interpreters to meet demand is impacting on delivery of justice, says select committee
Nearly 200 trials were disrupted or postponed in England and Wales in the first quarter of this year because interpreters provided by a private firm failed to appear, according to a damning report by a select committee.
The number of trials deemed ineffective was twice the number compared with the same period of the previous year, according to the report by the Public Accounts Committee, which exposes the "total chaos" caused by the Ministry of Justice's (MoJ) deal with Applied Language Solutions (ALS).
Despite repeated failures, the committee says, the firm received only "risible levels of penalties", amounting to fines of £2,200. Some names on the company's database were fictitious and a pet dog had even been registered, Margaret Hodge, the chair of the committee, said.
While the MoJ estimated it needed 1,200 interpreters to cover all the courts in England and Wales, the report explains, only 280 were available when the contract went live at the end of January.
"The ministry believed that many more interpreters were available to work, in line with contractual obligations, than was actually the case due to over-optimistic assurances from ALS and confusion over definitions of what important terms such as 'registered' actually meant," the report notes.
The company has since been acquired by Capita, the public services provider.
No due diligence checks were carried out on ALS before a framework agreement was signed. The MoJ "commissioned a credit rating report, which suggested that ALS should not be awarded a contract valued at more than £1m. [But] the ministry did not act on its findings."
The report adds: "The inability of Capita-ALS to provide sufficient interpreters to meet demand has impacted on the delivery of justice. The number of ineffective trials due to interpreter availability doubled from 95 [in the first quarter of 2011] to 182 [over the same period this year].
"We heard of cases where individuals were kept on remand solely because of lack of interpreter availability and a case where the trial went ahead without an interpreter even though one had been booked. The ministry estimated the cost of ineffective trials at £60,000, but this is an underestimate and does not account for costs associated with delays, non-trials, the time of victims and witnesses and the use of custody."
Hodge said: "When the Ministry of Justice set out to establish a new centralised system for supplying interpreters to the justice system, almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
"The ministry awarded the contract to a company, ALS, that was clearly incapable of delivering. The ministry had been warned that ALS was too small to shoulder a contract worth more than £1m, but went ahead and handed them an annual £42m contract covering the whole country."
She said the ministry did not understand its own basic requirements, such as how many interpreters it needed or in what languages. "It ignored the views of interpreters, who were clear that they had serious concerns about the contract and were adamant that they would not work for ALS," Hodge said.
"Matters became even worse when the ministry decided that the new service would go live nationally in one go. Many of the 'interpreters' it thought were available had simply registered an interest on the company's website and had been subject to no official checks that they had the required skills and experience. Indeed, we heard that some names were fictitious and one person had even successfully registered their pet dog. As a result, the company was able to meet only 58% of bookings against a target of 98%.
"The result was total chaos. Court officials have had to scramble to find qualified interpreters at short notice; there has been a sharp rise in delayed, postponed and abandoned trials; individuals have been kept on remand solely because no interpreter was available; and the quality of interpreters has at times been appalling."
Welcoming the report, Andy Slaughter, Labour's justice spokesman, said: "This must be one of the most damning reports ever on a government contract. There is very little positive to show for the millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. Instead what we saw was a catastrophe of errors that almost brought our courts to a standstill. The real fear is that because of the Tory-led government's incompetence, guilty people have walked free and the innocent have been locked up."