MoJ ditches new court interpreting system in face of major backlash

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has decided to allow courts to revert to the old system of selecting interpreters from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) in order to avoid further hearings being adjourned as a result of interpreters from a new agency failing to turn up to court.

The MoJ headquarters
The MoJ headquarters

The MoJ launched a new interpreter service on 30 January that required all court interpreters to be sourced from Applied Language Solutions (ALS).

However, since launch there have been reports of long delays and instances where interpreters were late, underprepared, underqualified or failed to turn up at all. This has resulted in a number of hearings being adjourned (16 February 2012).

A spokesman for the MoJ commented: “There have been some problems with short notice appointments in the first few weeks of the new system and so the courts have been told that they can use their own arrangements in the meantime to mitigate the number of hearings that are failing as a result of the contractor’s difficulties with sourcing interpreters at short notice.”

While the spokesman said this should be regarded as an interim measure, he confirmed that there has been no date or deadline set for when the courts will be required to rely solely on the new system.

An email sent from ALS chairman Gavin Wheeldon to the Professional Interpreters Alliance and seen by The Lawyer highlights that the agency is reacting to the mounting pressure from interpreters to improve the terms and conditions of the new system. “I’d like to use this opportunity to clear up any confusion and also announce some changes that we’ve made to our payment rates following feedback from you and your colleagues,” the email states.

The email mentions that, contrary to previous reports, ALS does pay interpreters for court waiting time. It also mentions several amendments, saying: “We’ve doubled the mileage allowance from 20p per mile to 40p for any travel over 10 miles (each way). I’d also like to confirm that we do pay linguists £10 an hour travel time after the first hour of travel (again each way) which again makes a big difference for shorter interpreting jobs outside of your immediate area.”

The email also notes that an interpreter will now receive a supplement for any job booked through the Linguist Lounge self-serve system. “This assigning method is very efficient so we’re now paying a £5 supplement for every booking accepted through any of the automation methods. This effectively increases the rate of the first hour for linguists,” says Wheeldon.

According to the Linguist Lounge website, this £5 supplement was introduced on Monday 20 February.

This is not the first time that problems have been reported about the Government’s efforts to outsource interpreting services to ALS. In 2011, the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance brought a judicial review against the Greater Manchester Police (GMP) which had contracted ALS to coordinate their interpreter system. The review was upheld over a breach of the Race Relations Act and the GMP was forced to sign a consent order at the end of February 2011.

The problems inherent in the new system have unleashed a large backlash from the interpreting community (20 February 2012).

A spokesman from digital transcription and translation company Transcription Global told The Lawyer that the company has been inundated with letters, calls and emails from anxious interpreters.

“We’ve heard stories of interpreters being used in court that haven’t even been assessed or vetted, and interpreters turning up late to tribunal hearings or not even turning up at all,” he said.

“Echoing the comments of Labour justice spokesman Andy Slaughter last week, we are baffled that the contract was even awarded after the displays of vehement opposition from the interpreting community towards pilot schemes that took place last year. Without the backing of the Professional Interpreters Alliance (PIA) and its members, ALS did not stand a chance of meeting the contract requirements as the selection of qualified, experienced interpreters to choose from has been severely depleted.”

“In the current economic climate, nobody can argue that savings of £60m over five years isn’t an inherently good thing. However, questions must be asked immediately of both the MoJ and ALS before the contract turns into an expensive mess that the taxpayer will be forced to clean up after. Transcription Global feel the only option on the table is for both sides to enter into serious dialogue and essentially dissolve the current framework, looking to design a solution that balances quality against cost. By using a single supplier service, you eradicate competition for payment to qualified interpreters. Capitalism between suppliers can reduce expenditure yet maintain high standards of pay for qualified personnel.”

Commenting on efforts to improve the situation, an MoJ spokesman said: “The Ministry of Justice is working with Applied Language Solutions to closely monitor the operation of the new contract.”

ALS declined to provide further comment.