UK Justice Policy Review
The courts and access to justice (Page 10)
In the year under review the House of Commons Justice Committee (JC) accused the Ministry of Justice of contempt of parliament in its handling of an enquiry into the contract for court translation and interpretation services in England and Wales. Plans to reform judicial review and legal aid prompted claims by over 100 leading lawyers, including a former Attorney General and a former Director of Public Prosecutions, that they would ‘seriously undermine the rule of law, and Britain’s global reputation for justice’.
Criminal legal aid reforms across the United Kingdom, and the disastrous court translation contract in England and Wales, are the main developments covered in this section. The reason for exploring the former should be fairly clear. Access to representation via legal aid, as the Justice Secretary wrote in his Foreword to the government’s controversial proposals, ‘goes to the heart of a civilised society, and underpins access to justice’ (Ministry of Justice, 2013a). The proposed changes threw into sharp relief important questions about what access to justice meant in practice.
The court translation contract, in contrast, might appear rather technical, arcane even. Its significance for Justice Policy Review comes less from the controversy that it stirred up and more from what it illustrates about the coalition’s approach to the delivery of a key justice service. The Context and overview section in this issue highlights the importance the coalition attaches to reforming the public sector and growing the private sector. The court translation contract is a good example of this dual priority in action.
The court language service contract
In 2009 the Office of Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR) began a review of court translation and interpretation services in England and Wales. The previous system (which involved the direct commissioning of qualified and accredited specialists, mostly through the National Register of Public Sector Interpreters) was well established and understood. The OCJR concluded that it was also inefficient, badly coordinated and costly. Reform could improve the management of the system and reduce costs. The incoming coalition government picked up this work and in August 2011 signed a framework agreement with Applied Language Services (ALS) to deliver interpretation and translation services across the whole justice sector. ALS was acquired by Capita in late 2011, after the framework agreement had been signed. The contract came into full force in January 2012 (National Audit Office, 2012a).
Problems arose immediately. The new system was the subject of a widespread boycott by interpreters and translators. Only 280 interpreters were ready for work when the new system went live. The Ministry of Justice had estimated that 1,200 were needed. Capita met just 58 per cent of bookings, leading to a sharp rise in trial delays.
A highly critical report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in December 2012 found that the Ministry of Justice had failed to consult adequately with court translators and interpreters and lacked information on their previous use. It did not conduct due diligence on ALS before signing the framework agreement. The PAC described the £2,200 penalty Capita/ALS had paid for underperformance as ‘risible’ and commented on the ‘low expectations of performance [that] allow private companies to get away with over promising and under delivering’. At the time of the publication of its report the PAC noted that the Ministry of Justice was still relying on contingency plans to source some interpreters (House of Commons, 2012c).
Two months later the JC published its own report, echoing many of the PAC’s concerns. It also questioned the rationale for changes to the court translation service. Acknowledging some ‘clear administrative inefficiencies within the variety of previous arrangements’, the JC went on to argue that ‘there do not appear to have been any fundamental problems with the quality of services’. Of more political significance, the JC accused the Ministry of Justice of contempt of the House of Commons for discouraging court staff and magistrates from cooperating with its inquiry. It had decided against taking this matter further, but it reminded ‘the Ministry of Justice and its agencies to have proper regard to the rights of Parliament’ (House of Commons, 2013b).
In all, this rather unedifying episode is a case study of how not to undertake public service reform. There was a government department embarking on a reform of questionable necessity, relying on inadequate information about the arrangements it sought to replace and an incomplete specification of the system that would be put in its place. Add to this a lack of consultation with and lack of buy in from the specialists needed to make it work, an apparent hostility to parliamentary scrutiny and challenge and a perfect storm of poor implementation and crisis management was almost inevitable.