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 interpreter 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.

(Edit: I will henceforth refer to Applied Language Solutions as ‘Applied’, apologies to Accredited Language Services of New York, for inadvertently messing all over their trademark ALS for the first 12 hours this post was live. Oops. For the record, they have nothing to do with this. On with the motley!)

What did Applied 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 Applied 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 Applied’s fees, a trial has actually collapsed thanks to an interpreter supplied by Applied. 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 retrial.

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 (or… promise) by Almighty God (or other god recognised by his or her religion) that I will well and truly interpret the evidence that will be given and do all other matters and things that are required of me in this case to the best of my ability.” (Evidence Act 2008, Schedule 1)

Applied seem to be employing interpreters for court who are apparently completely ignorant of “contempt of court”. For clarification, it’s:

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 Applied for employing hopeless interpreters? Apparently, thats not going to happen.

The Attorney General has said that Applied 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 Applied to pursue civil claims against them. In fact, one solicitor says he has two cases where they are “discussing” pursuing false imprisonment against Applied. 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 Applied. The Anonymous Interpreter tells how the new system is probably saving money, but not by any ethical means.

And yet, Applied 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 Applied 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.

6 thoughts on “What will it take? How about a collapsed trial?

  1. Tony Gray

    Very well written and an excellent review of the situation. I have knowledge of spoken (wife is an interpreter) and sign interpretation through my past work with RNID and agree that both areas are very tough indeed and my guess is that anyone who says differently has never tried either role. I also note that there is no difference between the interpreter in the case above and the Government – both have realised their mistake, but both failed to admit it and the latter refuse (thus far) to do anything about it. The Government are treating the whole nation with contempt.

    1. deaffirefly Post author

      Thanks, and you’re right, I hadn’t noticed the comparison but dead on. At least terp admitted it, albeit too late. Probably government will wait til it’s too late too.

  2. Mariana

    Crispin Blunt, Junior Justice Minister bent over backwards to promote and support ALS, the continuous list of costly disasters was dismissed as “teething problems”. After getting the MOJ contract, ALS was swiftly bought by Capita (remember the scandal “chief executive giving the labour party a ‘loan’ of £1 million)’, what we have here is cronyism and corruption and no amount of failure will make the MOJ ministers scrap the contract.

  3. Gabriela Beard

    I remember of the time when being an interpreter for the police and courts was such a big dream. It took so long and such hard work to see my dream come true. It used to make me feel useful and happy to be of service, being able to put my linguistic skills to good use. I speak 6 languages. I was born in a bilingual family- Romanian and Hungarian. I had taught English for 12 years before I moved to the Uk, 7 years ago and I have taught here as well-English and Geography. Although I speak Hungarian at native level and Spanish, French and Italian at conversation level (high intermediate), I would never dare step into a court room to interpret officially in any of these languages. It is way too important. and it is fast and highly specialised. You absolutely have to know the terminology, not to mention be familiar to the procedure and know what to expect.
    Those who think just about any Bob, Dick or Harry off the street can do it are stupid, irresponsible fools. And frankly, so is ALS. I expected more from the MOJ, though. They should man up and admit they have made a mistake, cut their losses and revert to what worked rather well.
    As for cutting costs, it’s not the effect a wise man should address, but the cause of that effect. The need for professional interpreters is just the effect of something much deeper, that they would not have the courage to address.

    1. deaffirefly Post author

      You sound like just the kind of interpreter who should be in the courtroom; highly skilled and fully aware of the stakes involved. Totally agree with your comments, just hope that MOJ will wake up to the damage they’re doing soon.

  4. Pingback: Access to Justice, my foot. | DeafFirefly's Blog

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