Lawyers slam Government’s new court interpreting system

As recent changes to the provision of interpreters for court hearings are set to save the Government £18m a year, many are concerned that the new system is leading to severe delays and costing more money.

On 30 January 2012, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) launched a new interpreter service, which has already been implemented in courts across England and Wales. The changes mean that court interpreters will now be sourced from one single agency, Applied Language Solutions (ALS).

Court interpreters were previously selected by the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI). Interpreters listed on the NRPSI are accredited to work in specialist areas of the public services, such as law, healthcare or local government-related services.

ALS has introduced a tier system of qualifications and payment that has brought interpreters’ pay down to a fee of £22, £20 and £16 per hour with no travel expenses. Only interpreters assigned on the top tier jobs are required to be fully qualified. Interpreters under the new system are now also only paid for the time actually spent in the courtroom.

ALS reportedly has 3,000 interpreters on its books, but there are widespread concerns over the quality of the interpreters they are now providing to courts. They will be selected under a new system devised by ALS in partnership with Middlesex University, which is reportedly undertaking independent assessments to gauge whether interpreters are qualified to interpret in court.

Currently some 60 per cent of the 2,300 interpreters from the NRPSI are refusing to work under the conditions of the new system. As a result, a large number of lawyers and judges have reported instances where interpreters were late, underprepared, under qualified or failed to turn up at all. In one instance, an interpreter was spotted texting on their mobile phone during a court hearing.

While a spokeswoman from ALS admitted that there have been some “teething problems” so far, many lawyers believe that the changes are jeopardising the justice system.

Jacqueline Ng, a duty solicitor at Hines Solicitor who deals with a large number of cases in Polish, has noticed considerable problems across the profession since the implementation of the new system.

“There’s been a lot of unnecessary delay and expense with many interpreters not turning up and trials having to be adjourned,” she said. “Many of the interpreters that have come are not registered and don’t understand legal jargon. The changes are having a big impact on how defendants are being treated and I don’t think it’s right to mess with people’s human rights and liberty in this way.”

Fadi Daoud, a partner at Lawrence & Co Solicitors, specialises in extradition hearings and highlights how vital it is to have qualified interpreters in the courtroom.

“I work in a very specialised area, so the interpreters I work with need particular knowledge of the subject matter and need to know specific vocabulary,” he said. “If interpreters don’t understand the context of a case, then there’s no way they will be able to translate it.”

Daoud believes that the Government’s decision to outsource and centralise the system for appointing interpreters has been ill-conceived.

“The Government seems to believe that centralising services automatically results in better outcomes. This is just not the case,” he explained. “There are no minimum standards now and there’s a centralised system that doesn’t help anyone at all.”

Daoud, who is a native Arabic speaker, was forced to interpret during a recent hearing as the assigned interpreter failed to show up. Many of his clients require interpreters who speak Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Romanian, Albanian, Arabic or Kurdish.

Dhaneshwar Sharma of Sharma Law Solicitors has experienced instances where court hearings have had to be adjourned as many as three times.

“The whole system is a mess, it’s unfair on detainees and the delays are no doubt adding to the public purse,” he said. “For a trial to be adjourned once, twice and maybe even three times, is just absurd. This should be cost-cutting for efficiency, but this shouldn’t mean deficiency.”

Sharma represents a number of Eastern European clients and has a good understanding of Romanian. In a recent case he noticed that the interpreter provided to interpret Romanian into English did not seem to be following the case correctly.

For many lawyers, their clients have been in the country for perhaps a matter of months and therefore do not have the linguistic skills to understand a trial nor the accusations against them without the assistance of an interpreter. Consequently, by failing to successfully provide an interpreter to represent such clients, ALS runs the risk of violating Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (28 April 1998 http://www.thelawyer.com/when-words-mean-everything/90650.article).

One lawyer reported that, after an interpreter failed to turn up three times for a case, the presiding judge suggested that the court should make a wasted costs order against ALS.

A spokeswoman for ALS said that the changes have been designed to make the system more efficient.

“We’re closely monitoring the service, will investigate any complaints made about the system and make changes and improvements as necessary,” she added.

Commenting on the selection process for interpreters under the new system, the MoJ said: “All interpreters are required to undertake continuous professional development and abide by a comprehensive Code of Conduct, which further emphasises that they should only undertake assignments which they’re competent to undertake.”

However, this is not the first time that problems have been reported about the Government’s efforts to outsource interpreting services to ALS.

In March 2011, the Manchester Evening News reported that interpreter schemes between ALS and police in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire and Cumbria, collapsed after hundreds of interpreters refused to work for ALS and set up a group called the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance. The group applied for a judicial review of the ALS contracts with the various police forces.

However, the deals were scrapped before the review even took place when the Greater Manchester Police admitted breach of the Race Relations Act and signed a consent order at the end of February 2011.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police, Cambridgeshire Police and police in South Wales are all believed to have made considerable savings to their interpreter systems in recent years without the need to resort to outsourcing.

Klasiena Slaney, an interpreter and the director and company secretary of the Society of Official Metropolitan Interpreters, commented: “Qualified professional interpreters are experts in their field and are an essential resource which ensures that justice and human rights are upheld. The introduction of outsourcing and the tier system by the Ministry of Justice will compromise the quality of service provided, which is resulting in costly delays and may lead to miscarriages of justice. We wish to engage directly with the Ministry of Justice in order to find solutions to improve efficiency and cost, whilst still maintaining standards of service.”

A MoJ spokesperson said: “This is just one of a number of common sense changes we’re implementing across the justice system to make it more efficient and effective, including digitisation of the courts, greater transparency and expanding the use of virtual courts.”