2 Mar 2012

Court translation service in crisis after cost-cutting deal

A government deal aimed at cutting the cost of court translation services, results in a boycott by interpreters and additional cost to the taxpayer, Channel 4 News has learned.

A government deal with Applied Language Solutions (ALS) was supposed to cut £18m off the Ministry of Justice‘s (MoJ) bill for court translation services in England and Wales – around 23 per cent of the budget. But what was intended as a cost-cutting measure will cost the government thousands of pounds every day in delays and adjournments, Channel 4 News has been told.

Around 1,000 interpreters have not been turning up to court because of the reduced pay and expenses offered by ALS. As a result, court hearings reliant on interpreters have been delayed or postponed, at a high cost to the MoJ and the taxpayer.

One of the most serious cases was at Leeds Crown Court on February 22, which led Judge Robert Bartfield to say: “Apart from the waste of time for the jurors, the distress caused to witnesses and the defendant himself, the cost of this now aborted trial is likely to run into thousands of pounds.”

Geoffrey Buckingham, chairman of the Association of Police and Court Interpreters (APCI) told Channel 4 News that translation services are required at an average of two cases a day, at over 300 magistrates’ courts.

Based on Crown Prosecution figures in a 2006 report, each postponed hearing in a magistrates court costs the taxpayer £101, if adjusted for inflation. If a trial in the magistrates is postponed, the total cost is £816 at today’s prices, while a trial which is abandoned completely on the day it was due to start costs the taxpayer £1,037, or about £1,231 at current rates.

When a defendant has to be remanded in custody because of an adjournment, each day in custody costs £94.35. The average adjournment between hearings is 23 days, making the total cost £2,170, or £2,662 at current prices.

“What they (the MoJ) have come up with is a ham fisted, poorly constructed, ill-thought-through and extremely costly concept, which when they’ve implemented it has proven to be as disastrous as we predicted last August and September,” he told Channel 4 News.

In addition to the lack of translating staff, ALS has been accused of providing unqualified interpreters to court, because a lack of qualified interpreters who are willing to work for the company.

At Boston Magistrates court, on February 1, Channel 4 News was told that a Polish interpreter turned up to court wearing a hat and overalls and didn’t understand the solicitor when he said they needed to go down to the cells.

The following day at Basildon Magistrates Court, the interpreter did not know what an oath was. It emerged that this was her first time in court, and she was not familiar with the legal language or protocol.

Syed Amjad Ali, 53, a public service interpreter and co-ordinator of the 200-strong group Justice for Interpreters, said concerns were first raised about ALC when the company took over interpretation services for five police services in the north.

Qualified interpreters were previously entitled to £30 an hour, with a minimum of three hours work, as well as travel time and mileage. “Since ALS has taken over, they put interpreters on a three tier system, and offered £16, £20 or £22 an hour. And they cut down to a minimum of one hour, rather than three,” he told Channel 4 News.

“None of our members are working with them. They are refusing to work on reduced rates,” he added. “All the court work that we normally would get directly from the court, we are not getting it any more. Until we sign with ALS, we won’t get any work.”

National register of interpreters

Before ALS took over the court translation services, interpreters were contacted directly through the National Register of Public Service Interpreters – a register which currently has around 2,300 people that according to Mr Buckingham, was the “envy” of other European countries.

To get on to the register, linguists were required to have a degree level qualification in their language, and if applicable, a diploma in public service interpreting. For full status, rather than interim, they also need 400 hours of experience. A CRB check is also required.

In a statement, ALS maintained that their interpreters undergo rigourous tests to make sure they are suitable, but added they are implementing ” a number of significant improvements and increased our resources considerably”.

“Assigning qualified and experienced linguists to assignments and insisting on continuous professional development, while reducing operational inefficiencies, remains the focus of our service.”

Who is Applied Language Solutions?
The Oldham based firm was set up by the young entrepreneur Gavin Wheeldon in 2003, offering translation services to clients.

In August 2011 ALS succeeded against five other shortlisted bidders in winning a £60m five year contract from the Ministry of Justice to provide a ‘one-stop shop’ for interpreting services to the courts and tribunals in England and Wales. ALS has provided interpreting services for some police stations since 2009 and the company also won a contract with the London 2012 Olympics and with an NHS Trust.

Wheeldon, 35, appeared on Dragons’ Den in 2007 pitching for investment in ALS but his valuation of the company was quickly judged to be wildly fanciful by one of the ‘dragons’ Theo Paphitis. (see video below)

Payment is ‘woefully inaccurate’

In a letter to the MoJ, the National Register of Public Service Interpreters said it had been informed that the new payment structure is “woefully inadequate”.

“Our main concern as a regulatory body is for public safety,” Sian Pritchard, NRPSI executive manager told Channel 4 News. “Obviously if there are cases where they can’t get access to a qualified interpreter that raises concerns for us.”

The reduced service and alleged drop in standards is a result of the government prioritising cost-cutting over quality of service, said Andy Slaughter, the shadow justice minister, who points out that ALS, worth £7m, was given a contract worth £300m over five years.

MoJ accused of ‘sheer incompetence’

“It is sheer incompetence,” he told Channel 4 News. “It [MoJ] signs up to a cut of 23 per cent of its budget, it has no idea how to do that.

“Some little company comes along and says ‘we’ll do it’. There’s no basis for thinking that they can possibly do, and what happens next? The contract collapses within a few days and everything’s in chaos.”

The MoJ admitted to problems in the first few weeks of the contract, but said that ALS have put measures in place to solve the issues and that there has already been improvements. “We remain committed to ensuring the rights and needs of those who require interpreters are safeguarded as well as ensuring value for tax-payers across the justice system, and will continue to monitoring the system on a daily basis.”

It said the reason for the contract was not just to save money, but to improve existing delays in court translation services.

Peter Beeke, chairman of Peterborough Magistrates Court, bemoaned what he described as a “crazy” system where growing number of cases were having to be adjourned because of problems with interpreters.

He told Channel 4 News that just last week, his court had three cases abandoned on the day and adjourned for a later time.

“Court time is precious and having to postpone court cases for two weeks when they could be dealt with is surely not going to be cheap,” he said.

The system worked very successfully in Peterborough. Clearly, unless we sort this out the £18m will disappear very quickly.

“Today, four Polish defendants appeared, no interpreter, and had to be remanded in custody.”

Mr Beeke described another recent case in which a defendant had six court appearances without an interpreter present.

“That’s absolutely crazy,” he said.