Lost in translation

Court interpreters row raises spectre of miscarriages of justice

When the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced on 30 January that it was launching a new interpreter service for courts in England and Wales it probably did not anticipate the backlash that would follow.

Around 60 per cent of the 2,300 interpreters from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters – the body that previously supplied court interpreters – are refusing to work under the conditions of the new system, run by Applied Language Solutions (ALS). There have been reports of long delays and instances where interpreters were late, under-prepared, underqualified or failed to turn up at all. In spite of this, ALS says it has 3,000 interpreters on its books. However, there are concerns about the quality of these individuals, who are selected under a system devised by ALS.

It is clear why so many interpreters are choosing to abstain from working with ALS, with pay being moved to a tiered system with no travel or other time expenses included.

Only interpreters assigned to the top tier of jobs are required to be fully qualified. However, it seems rather strange that the Government has gone ahead with the system, given the disasters that marked pilot schemes last year, when police in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire and Cumbria ditched ALS after Greater Manchester
Police admitted a breach of the Race Relations Act and signed a consent order in February 2011.

The overriding concern is that the new system will lead to miscarriages of justice. It is reminiscent of the case of Iqbal Begum, who was wrongly convicted of murdering her husband in 1981. Three years after the trial it was discovered that she had been misunderstood by an unqualified interpreter who did not even speak the same dialect. The interpreter was forced to speak in Urdu, which Begum could not fully comprehend. As a result she was understood to be admitting to murder rather than manslaughter. Although she was released on appeal, her family had already disowned her and she committed suicide a short time later.

While that was an extreme case, it shows that there is no room for error in the courts. Perhaps more than any other profession, it is clear that when it comes to court interpreting every word counts.