January 21 2022

Language problem

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Language problem

ANALYSIS. John Storer writes about the growing crisis enveloping  a controversial new contract to run court interpreter services.

I live and work as a criminal defence lawyer in Boston, Lincolnshire, a fairly small market town, some 125 miles north of London.

John is a partner with criminal defence firm, CDA solicitors, in Lincolnshire. He entered private practice in 1988 after 16 years in magistrates' courts in Sussex, Greater Manchester and Lincolnshire.

A town that has seen dramatic changes in the last 10 years: in 2001, the population was around 35,000 and it’s now around the 45,000. The massive increase is almost exclusively down to the influx of migrant workers that have come here from other EU countries to work on the land or in the many food factories that provide most of the work here.

Today, some 20%-25% of our client base is non-English speaking and pretty much every court sitting has at least three interpreters. Over the years, we have got to know and, much more importantly, trust the interpreters we come across every day.  They play a vital role in the proper administration of justice – not just for the defence but for police and prosecution also. Many victims of crime, and many witnesses, do not have a sufficient grasp of English to make a complaint or give a full account of what they have seen.

Interpreters are involved at the outset – from taking complaints and witness statements, through to acting as translators during interviews with suspects, and then to assisting the court in making sure the defendant or witness understands and is understood. They assist both prosecution and defence and, without them, the entire criminal justice system in our area would be in deep trouble.

So it was with some misgivings that I read that the Ministry of Justice planned to contract out interpreting requirements. My concerns increased when it was announced that the contract had been awarded and that pretty much every interpreter I knew was refusing to sign up. The warning signs were there at the outset – the contract was originally due to start in October last year but for some unannounced reason was postponed to 2012.

We had experienced problems before – Lincolnshire Police had entered into a contract several years ago with a company called CINTRA to provide interpreters at police stations.  There were ‘teething problems’ at first; many of the initial interpreters sent were simply not up to the job. This caused extra public expense, because defence solicitors had to employ their own interpreters to accompany them to the police station and the cost was borne directly by the Legal Services Commission.

However, the poor ones dropped out and we were seeing interpreters of quality and, more importantly perhaps, a working knowledge of the criminal justice system.  We started to have enough trust in them that the need for our own translators diminished to the point that we trusted the CINTRA interpreters entirely and began using them for defence work as well.

The figures are quite astonishing – in 2011, Lincolnshire Police made 2,200 requests for interpreters (the overwhelming majority of them being for Russian, Polish and Lithuanian speakers).

Earlier this month the Ministry of Justice announced that the contract had been given to a company called Applied Language Solutions (ALS), formed in 2003 with. It has considerable experience worldwide supplying such services. However straight after the award of the contract, Capita Group PLC (the UK’s largest provider of ‘business process outsourcing’) bought the company.

It soon became clear that many of the interpreters we knew and trusted had not signed up to work for ALS. This was because the ‘contract for services’ meant that many of them would be simply unable to work for the money being offered for their services. Previously, they had been paid for a minimum of three hours’ work with travelling and expenses. Not overly generous when one considers that would probably be their only job of the day with no guarantee of work the following day or days.  The new contract is for an hour minimum with usually no travelling.

Anthony Walker, a spokesman for ALS is quoted as saying that the rates are ‘fixed and non-negotiable for everyone. This rate of pay is £22 an hour for a Tier 1 linguist and £20 per hour for a Tier 2 linguist.

He continued: ‘These two categories being the ones that will be required to deliver the great bulk of all the work done by linguists in criminal justice settings. A very small portion of criminal justice work will fall in to the Tier 3 category at £16.’

There are few of us who can afford to work full-time with the possibility of only earning £22 in a day, let alone £16.

The contract, worth £300m over five years, is supposed to save the nation £18m a year. Quite how this adds up, when the MoJ has previously said they already spend £60m a year on interpreters and translators, is beyond me.  What is clear, however, is that Capita obviously thought this was a company well worth snapping up and clearly saw huge profits.

Flight risk
Anyway, there I was at Boston Magistrates’ Court on the second or third day of the new system. I was court duty solicitor, and was told there was a young Rumanian lad in custody. He’d been charged with (and admitted when interviewed by the police) a very large shop theft. He’d never been in court before.  I was told an interpreter had been booked for 9.30am.

By 11.00am, and no interpreter had arrived, I started to make enquiries. The police confirmed they had booked one, but then rang me back to tell me they had been told by ALS that ‘no one had picked up the job’. I could not even explain to my client (who had not had the benefit of legal advice whilst at the police station – his own choosing) why there was a delay.

Several phone calls later, I was told an interpreter would be with me for 1.00pm. She arrived at 1.35pm, having driven many miles from another county.  I was pleased to see she was nationally-registered. The National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) maintains a register of professional, qualified and accountable public service interpreters.

So I was sure she would know what she was doing. And she did.  We dealt with the case very swiftly after her arrival.  She then began to tell me some real horror stories about the quality of some of her ‘colleagues’ who had joined ALS and who held no qualifications at all.

For instance, she told me that she had heard a custody sergeant refuse a detainee bail because he was ‘a flight risk’. Anyone in the criminal justice system would know that this meant he might abscond and fail to surrender to his bail at court. However, this was translated by the ‘interpreter’ into ‘You must stay here to stop you catching a plane’

Still, I was hopeful. Here was an interpreter who knew her stuff. Perhaps there would be others like her?  I have not yet found out; she is the only interpreter who has turned up for any of my cases.  So far, I am personally aware of 16 cases where the interpreter has simply failed to attend.  Many of these have been for defendants in custody. One was charged with murder.

ALS have confirmed that ‘some’ cases have been cancelled because the firm was unable to provide interpreters. ‘Unfortunately that has been true in some cases which is something that we are working extremely hard to resolve,’ an ALS spokesperson said. Actually, I reckon this has been true in the majority of cases in our area and it is clear that the same thing has happened in courts up and down the country.

A mess of their own making
The ALS has acknowledged that there have been circumstances where it had not been possible to fulfill a booking at short notice. It added: ‘Prior to rollout there was limited accurate management information available regarding the expected daily volumes of short notice interpreter requests.

This is a five year, £300m contract – are they seriously saying that they did not actually know what was expected to fulfill that contract?

Social media networks, such as Twitter, soon started to highlight the problems courts were facing. This was picked up by more traditional media outlets – articles have appeared in The Guardian and The Law Society Gazette. A fuss was made. The fuss got attention. So much so, in fact, that Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Service issued a press release last week saying it will ‘revert to the previous arrangements for all bookings due within 24 hours at the magistrates’ courts … for urgent bookings required for bail applications, deports and fast track applications in the first tier tribunal immigration and asylum and urgent bookings in the asylum support tribunal.’

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of registered interpreters see no reason to help the MoJ out of a mess wholly of its own making and are not cooperating with this relaxation of the contract.

Things will only improve when ALS increase the rates of pay it is offering, thus tempting qualified, highly-skilled, interpreters to sign up with them. However, their new masters at Capita are unlikely to be happy with the profits from the contract being reduced – probably substantially reduced.

In the meantime, public money and court time is being wasted by delayed or aborted hearings.  One suspects there is ‘limited accurate management information available’ to determine the actual cost but it is increasing by the day.

Please be quiet
I cannot end this article without commenting on my concerns about the quality of those interpreters so far signed up with ALS.  I have received anecdotal evidence (which I have no reason to doubt) of a lack of experience, knowledge of procedure, and even the language they are supposed to be translating.

The figures do tend to suggest that there will be a diminution of quality.  ALS claims that they have signed 3,000 interpreters to run this contract. There are not 3,000 nationally-registered interpreters (the NRPSI website says there are ‘over 2,000’).  Of those members, at least 40% – probably many more – have refused to enrol with ALS.  I would be greatly surprised if even 30% of the 3,000 interpreters have the necessary qualifications and experience to work in the criminal justice system

Probably the most important thing that is said to a detainee when in custody at a police station is the caution.  It’s complicated for most lay persons in English, so its careful and accurate translation is crucial to the course of justice. Every day, what is said after that caution is administered impacts on just about every trial in every criminal court.

The caution starts ‘You do not have to say anything …’ reminding the interviewee of his or her right to remain silent and not answer questions. A basic right at the heart of criminal justice – the right not to self-incriminate. The caution then goes on to say ‘… but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something you later rely on in court’.  This reminds the detainee that remaining silent may impact upon his trial and that the court can draw a conclusion that his remaining silent was because he had no defence to offer, or that a subsequent explanation at trial may not be believed.

It is therefore extremely worrying that an interpreter of my acquaintance, one of the most experienced (and trusted) in the area, recounts an interview where ‘You do not have to say anything’ was translated by the interpreter as ‘Please be quiet’

I imagine that the knock-on effects of this contract will be occupying the Court of Appeal in the months to come.








12 responses to “Language problem”

  1. Zakir73uk says:

    MoJ must cancel the contract with it’s contractor ALS because the have a duty to protect the Justice. At the moment Justice is denied to non-English speakers due to lack of a proper qualified interpreter. There are so many adjournments everywhere. “Justice delayed, Justice denied”. ALS has failed to deliver the service very badly and it has no right to damage the Justice like this, however, it is doing so with the MoJ’s backing.
    It must stop running now. Enough is enough?
    Zakir Hossain
    Official Police & Court interpreter

    • Erdogan says:

      Can anyone make any sense that the government is saying so far the annual cost of interpreting and translation-transcription within the CJS is about £60 million in ENgland and Wales. They, the government is also saying that the contract with the ASL is intended to bring the annual cost to £42 million, a saving of £18 million per year, yet the contract signed between the ALS “the preferred bidder” and the government have a value of £ 300 million over five years. There is obviously no savings in the contract. That is to say, it seems, the supposed savings of £18 million annually will be going into the pockets of the ALS and their masters Capita and its share holders. Who cares about the public purse or about the quality of interpreting within the CJS. Money talks.!!!

      It is very clear that the ALS and the MoJ has failed on the FWA, they should call it a day, and say sorry, we got it wrong.

      • bemused onlooker says:

        I am presuming that the 300 million represents 60 million per year for five years. I agree with you that underperformance on this level should be given short shrift. It seems beyond belief that the Ministry of Justice would really have believed they could save 30% on their current interpreting and translation bill. It sounds like a case of ‘outsource in haste, repent at leisure…’

  2. monika says:

    Mr John Storer, thank you for this article. You have highlighted so many important issues. However, I cannot agree with one of them: ‘Things will only improve when ALS increase the rates of pay it is offering’. No, the contract with ALS MUST be terminated. Only then will we be able to work for courts again. We don’t need (and don’t want) to work for any agency. We are freelancers and the introduction of any intermediary or agent only increases costs. Besides, no single agency is needed because there is National Register of Public Service Interpreters which is available online to anyone free of charge and it provides qualified and vetted interpreters in a huge number of languages. You can search them by language and location, so if you need an interpreter at short notice, you are very likely to find one.

    • Ex-Interpreter says:

      I do not mind working for a local agency that respects my hard earned qualifications and the skills aquired over many years of practice. I do understand, that the MoJ has to cut expenditure, and that agency can make money on co-ordinating bookings, which can be founded with some of the savings to the MoJ’s budgets, as courts would only make one phone call/email, and not have to deal with individual payments to interpreters, and by better organisation (a hearing, for which a booked interpreter has arrived, should be given priority in the listings), thus eliminating the time paid to the interpreters, while they wait for the case to be heard. These changes offer quite a substantial savings for the MoJ, without causing any hardship to the interpreters, and still lets the agency make an operating profit.
      Local agency has to prove to the local court, that it has sufficient qualified interpreters (DPSI) in the locality. No one agency should be granted such a monopolistic position, as to be a sole supplier. I will never join ALS under any terms, as I do not trust them, that offering “better deal” would only be to get me on board, in the meantime, local agencies become a thing of the past, and then, when they chop the rates, to recoup the “losses” made by offering a “better deal”, who do you have to compete with them then?
      The MoJ has been warned of the flaws in their proposals since 2010. All warnings and suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. The reluctance by the MoJ, to ditch ALS, seems very alarming to me. This could have never happened in the private sector, as after 3 weeks of such performance, the supplier would be sued for incurred losses, resulting in the liquidation of the company. For these reasons, I think, nothing short of an urgent public inquiry, will solve this seemingly nonsensical situation.
      By my own experience, bookings in court were always an open-end bookings. I never dreamed of taking a booking on the day (PM), when I was booked at court in the morning. About 60% of my bookings at court, run over into the afternoon session. It did not seem professional to me, to tell the clerk, “sorry, you booked me for the morning, I have to go now”, when the case was not heard in the morning. That’s becasuse, as a proffesional, I was guaranteed 3hours pay, and also as a proffesional, I understood how the courts work, in contrast to bookings at Probation Service, which almost always started and ended on time (maybe with the exception of PSR bookings – some run longer), were paid by the hour, and provided I kept a safe margin, I could make other bookings on the day. Courts don’t work that way, that was the selling point of the alleged savings to be made by ALS.
      Fortunately, I can watch all this with great interest, from the sidelines, as I have left the interpreting profession, swapping the uncertainty of my income (circa £15-18k/pa) as an interpreter, for a £30k/pa salaried position, where my communication skills and the expertise in dealing with widest range of personalities, and familiarity with public sector is greatly appreciated (Contracts Manager with a Plc Company).
      However, the job is not as soul satisfying, as Interpreter’s work was, at the end of the day.

    • John Storer says:

      Fair point, well made

    • John Storer says:

      Fair point, well made, but I suspect that an increase in the rates of pay will see more NRPSI interpreters signing with ALS.

  3. Paula Paula says:

    Dear Mr Storer,

    Thank you very very much. However, like Monika said this is no longer a question of money but principles. This contract only served one purpose, making a few very rich at the expense of destroying a profession and public interest. We would think that these Ministries were run by wise and intelligent people…

    There is no point in ALS offering more money. LAW QUALIFIED INTERPRETERS do not want to work for them, full stop. Why should we do them a favour?

  4. Irina says:

    John Storer served a writ – “ALS is shit!”

    Hope it made you smile!

  5. Anonymous says:

    One point perhaps worth making is that when you do an interview at the police station, record your consultation so that if you have worries later about quality, you will be able to judge whether his instructions to you and your consequent advice were translated correctly. We can always check the accuracy of the translation of the interview but by that time the damage might already have been done.

  6. F**K ALS says:

    MoJ had shown contempt for interpreters who were a great value to the CJS. In order for any self-respecting interpreter to go back working for MoJ, they must do few things quikly: terminate the ALS contract with an immediate effect, publicly apologise to the interpreter community for the hurt and injury created by their decision and as a way of remedy pay all those NRPSI registered interpreters who did not take any bookings from the court and who had not signed up with ALS a compensation of £5000 each and announce new increased interpreter fees (i.e. minimum guaranteed payment of £150 for the first three hours of work plus £25 p/hour travel time and travel expenses and an hourly rate of £50 p/hour for any additional time spent in court after the first three hours). This are the immediate announcements that have to be made by the MoJ, and then there should be ministerial heads rolling for the stupidity of the MoJ and lies told by the minister in the House of Commons on 10th October 2011 during the adjournment debate which I attended with some other interpreters. Also, there must be an enquiry (public?!) to root out possible corrupt payments (brown envelopes) or financial gains made by officials (ministers or civil servants?!) responsible for awarding the contract to ALS, because this whole affair smells very, very rotten indeed.

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