UK Public Service Interpretation outsourcing – Quality Standards and Assessments
The Ministry of Justice’s decision to outsource public service interpretation was based on its perception that costs will be saved by using a Framework Agreement (FWA) and contracting it out to Applied Language Solutions (ALS) – now re-branded Capita Translation and Interpreting - whilst maintaining quality.
This has not been the case, as was recently admitted by the government. Its implementation has in fact brought chaos in the courts of this country and a large number of lawyers and judges have reported instances where interpreters were late, under-qualified or failed to turn up at all, causing increasing costs due to adjourned hearings and collapsed trials. If a defendant is unable to give instructions or understand the proceedings, he is, to all intent and purposes "absent from the proceedings" and trial in absentia is not permitted under English law.
I am particularly concerned about the quality of service provided under the new arrangements and believe that outsourcing interpreting services to a commercial agency is rapidly destroying all that had been achieved so far to raise the standard of interpreters who work in the public service sector. This has taken considerable effort and investments over a long period of time (see page 13 of Equal Access to Justice and Fair Trial for non-English speakers).
The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice noted in 1993 that 'Clearly, in the court setting, the highest standards of interpretation are called for.' The Royal Commission recommended that only trained and qualified interpreters be used in court, and the recommendation was accepted by the Government. In response, a National Register of Public Service Interpreters ('NRPSI') was established in 1994, which offers a minimum and measurable standard of training and quality assurance, followed by the National Agreement on the Use of Interpreters (NA) which requires legal interpreters to be, ‘whenever possible’, sourced from the NRPSI.
However, the FWA has brought in a tiered system which lowered the minimum required quality standards of interpreters working in the Criminal Justice System, and ALS/CAPITA introduced a system of unaccredited assessments which interpreters undertake in order to register with them and to be placed in their respective tier.
When ALS/CAPITA was awarded the MoJ language contract, they stated the following: By using Applied Language Solutions' national network of vetted and qualified freelance linguists who are approved, where appropriate, through an assessment process developed and delivered by independent institutions including Middlesex University, justice sector organisations will benefit from an all-encompassing coherent system that will deliver greater consistency and a higher quality of skilled linguists required for the job.
I also received a letter from Justice Minister Crispin Blunt dated 23 May 2012, via my MP, in which he stated:
'I understand that your constituent has concerns about the continued quality of foreign language interpreters. While it is true that the Framework Agreement opens up the market by allowing for an increased range of acceptable qualifications and experience than was previously the case, it also additionally requires all foreign language interpreters to pass an assessment, thus ensuring that standards are maintained.
I remain satisfied that under the Framework Agreement the Ministry of Justice will continue to have access to interpreters of an appropriate quality while ensuring value for money for the public.'
Whilst both the MoJ and ALS/CAPITA consider this to be an 'assessment' ensuring quality and standards, Brooke Townsley of Middlesex University makes it clear in his Law Gazette comment that ‘what was designed at Middlesex University was explicitly NOT intended to mimic or replace the DPSI examination, nor indeed was it designed to serve the same purposes. It was delivered solely as an in-service performance check, providing a diagnostic check (not a pass or fail result)’.
This assessment it is NOT an externally accredited and objective examination and by definition it cannot be considered an objective assessment exercise, because it is set up as part of private commercial arrangement between ALS/CAPITA Ltd and Middlesex University. Initially ALS/CAPITA charged the linguists for the assessment costs £100 +VAT (£120 total) claiming to be collecting this payment on behalf of Middlesex University, which is responsible for designing and running the Assessments Centres nationally. They later reversed this policy and reimbursed the payments that had been made. This raises the question as to who now subsidises this assessment, which effectively allows ALS/CAPITA to pass unqualified bilinguals for capable interpreters under the pretence of them undergoing "independent assessment carried out by a leading university".
Once registered, the majority of linguists of any tier are offered immediate assignments, for which they may or not be qualified.
The standard of interpretation is fundamental to a fair trial and to justice. Since the implementation of the contract with ALS/CAPITA, there have been well over 2,200 official complaints and there have been numerous concerns expressed about the quality of some of the interpreters used by HMCTS. The concerns have included insufficient knowledge of the witness's language, inadequate standard of English, and an inability to interpret properly (which is not the same as speaking both languages). For recent examples, see ‘Court interpreter farce halts murder trial’.
It is clear from the numerous articles published in the press that ALS/CAPITA has failed to deliver both in terms of linguistic competence and in supplying sufficient number of interpreters to meet the needs of the legal system.
This outsourcing has proven to be detrimental to the sustainability and development of the public service profession, to the supply of qualified interpreters and translators, and to the delivery of justice.
The disregard shown by the MoJ and ALS/CAPITA for standards and quality, added to the slashing of the rates of pay to interpreters, means that professionals are no longer be able to afford to carry out this vital work in the public sector, and are seeking to earn a better living in other sectors.
Both as an interpreter and as a UK taxpayer, I am convinced that the Ministry of Justice’s Framework Agreement (FWA) does not serve the interests of justice. It has clearly failed its purpose.
In line with the aims of the Professional Interpreters for Justice Campaign, my colleagues and I feel that the only options viable to us are to:
1. Reverse the outsourcing to ALS/CAPITA or other commercial agencies, and the reintroduction of direct employment of freelance interpreters by the courts and police services
2. Establish regular dialogue between interpreter organisations and government
3. Persuade government to provide statutory regulation of the interpreting profession and protection of the title of Legal Interpreter.