What will it take? How about a collapsed trial?
I had originally planned to make my next blog post all about my impressions of America from a deaf perspective, but events have overtaken me somewhat. Whilst I faithfully promise to tell all about being a deaf tourist in the most deaf-aware country I have ever visited at some point, today I want to talk about the latest hoo-ha surrounding the Ministry of Justice’s wonderful new scheme for court interpreters.
Just to give some background, the system for finding an interpreter for court used to be that someone would contact some qualified interpreters from a national register who had usually also undertaken further training for legal interpreting and ask them if they were available. If they were, said intepreters would be paid a flat fee of £85, a quarter-hourly rate after three hours, and were paid for travel time and expenses.
Maybe this old system wasn’t perfect, but even the judges accepted that it worked. The problem? It was expensive. Enter Applied Language Solutions, who bid for, and remarkably, won the entire interpreting contract for the Ministry of Justice in a deal designed to save £18 million.
What did ALS do to achieve this target? They slashed interpreters' fees to a three-tier system of hourly fees of £16, £20 and £22 with no travel payments and reduced expenses for what is, let’s face it, a very tough job. Then they wondered why nobody wanted to work for them. Indeed, the whole business with ALS has sparked protests and a campaign against them that even Unite has joined.
I first commented on this in a blog post entitled British Special Language, where I mocked a couple of large ‘one stop shop’ interpreting firms for their lack of knowledge of those they were serving, lamented the new court interpreting contract, and hoped they would sort out the mess soon.
Two months later, what’s happened? After weeks of adjournments and delays caused by no-shows or poor interpreting by those willing to take ALS’s fees, a trial has actually collapsed thanks to an interpreter supplied by ALS. It’s going to cost £25,000. Now that’s an expensive interpreter.
For me, it’s not so much that the interpreter made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. And phonetically, there’s not much difference between ‘beaten’ and ‘bitten’. No, it’s that the interpreter then admitted to the court that they had realised their mistake, but had said nothing.
They realised they had misunderstood, and interpreted something wrongly, but did nothing about it. The mistake was only discovered when the prosecution cross-examined the defendant. The judge had to order a re-trial.
That has to be one of the clearest ethical breaches in interpreting that I have ever heard of. Quite apart from anything else, an interpreter in court has to swear that:
"I swear by Almighty God (or other god recognised by his or her religion) that I will well and faithfully interpret and true explanation make of all such matters as shall be required of me according to the best of my skill and understanding."*
ALS seem to be employing interpreters for court who are apparently completely ignorant of contempt of court. For clarification:
Contempt of court is essentially where somebody is deemed to have interfered with the administration of justice. This may take several forms but each of them will result in justice itself not being properly carried out. It is for this reason that contempt of court is seen as such a serious offence and which results in possible prison sentences.
So tell me, what does an interpreter have to do to be arrested around here? How about break an oath and cause a trial to collapse?
And what about contempt proceedings against ALS for employing hopeless interpreters? Apparently, that's not going to happen.
The Attorney General has said that ALS cannot be done for contempt, but there may be provision under the ‘wasted costs’ orders. £25,000 for a new trial seems like a wasted cost to me. And apparently, it may be possible for defendants who have had to stay in custody thanks to ALS to pursue civil claims against them. In fact, one solicitor says he has two cases where they are discussing pursuing false imprisonment against ALS. Dear, oh dear.
RPSI Linguist Lounge, a not-for-profit website run by registered public service interpreters (RPSIs) for registered public service interpreters, is awash with horror stories about ALS. The Anonymous Interpreter tells how the new system is probably saving money, but not by any ethical means.
And yet, ALS seem to be clinging on. I wonder for how much longer, and what it will take?
We’re approaching the end of April, and apparently, the Framework Agreements under which ALS has its contract will be up for review. In honour of this, RPSI have organised a demonstration on Monday 16th April outside the offices of the Ministry of Justice and the Houses of Parliament.
I’ll be following what the Ministry of Justice chooses to do about this shambles with interest, and so, I suspect, will many others.
Interpreters, whether they be for spoken or sign languages, deserve better than this. So do our courts, and the people who have to find their way through them.
*(Oath wording corrected by the Editors)