Comment: Outsourcing interpreters has turned the courts into a freak show

Professional interpreters will not work under slavery conditions, subsidising the criminal justice system and being forced to sit unaccredited tests well below standard.

By Geoffrey Buckingham

When justice minister Crispin Blunt signed off an agreement allowing the outsourcing of court interpreters to a contractor, he had no idea of the fury he would inflame.

Yet this is only part of the story. The contractor, ALS, is abjectly failing to supply any form of acceptable service, with huge numbers of cases going unheard at courts all over the country. Even when they farm the work out to competitive agencies few professionals will take the work.

As time goes by, more and more non-English speakers are being held in custody on remand for minor offences, and forming a queue for commencing proceedings at the High Court for discrimination and other allegations. These will be very costly, and with other unwelcome costs will far exceed any possible savings.

Interpreters for Justice collects and collates failings of the ALS every working day, many of which have appeared in local and national press and some even going as far as the BBC and Channel 4. The BBC highlighted allegations of data theft by the contractor, whose lame excuse was that they bought it some time ago. On the contrary, they bought a temporary licence for access to the data.

It must be asked how many of the current number are genuine interpreters at all, since we also know that a large number of professionals have had their details listed without their consent. Last week, on March 28th, professionals were deluged with friendly calls from the ALS asking them to reconsider signing up. At least one colleague received a call from the chief executive himself, and had the great pleasure of explaining why she would never work for him and enable his purchase of a new Ferrari out of her hard work.

Then there is the matter of the "linguists" working for the contractor. The numbers announced increase and decrease as the daily temperature falls and rises. More worryingly, it includes inexperienced, untrained and unqualified people, with examples of some leaving the premises before the case is called. At least one has been struck off the National Register following a warning from the police, and others have failed the stringent examinations and not succeeded in being admitted.

Judges are now threatening contempt of court proceedings against the ALS, and in a letter to Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, Dominic Grieve has suggested that judges and magistrates may be encouraged to institute proceedings against the contractor's linguists for failing to discharge their duties under their oath. It may be just a matter of time before one or more are convicted of contempt and spend a short time in custody. That would focus the minds of linguists: the message would be clear, that if you work for them you risk custody and having a criminal record.

Only yesterday another example of the abject failure of the contractor took place. There was a sentencing fixed for a case involving two Nepalese on charges of perverting the course of justice. Originally listed for 2 March, no interpreter attended court. It was re-fixed for 3 April, and they failed to provide an interpreter again. They fervently promised to supply a week later, but the court was of the view that such assurances were not to be trusted and went ahead using the services of a family member present among the public. This person had no experience of court or the justice system and did his best, and was then asked by the probation service to assist them after suspended sentences were handed down.

This ill-thought through framework has still not been killed off. Letters go unanswered, parliamentary questions answered with obfuscation and delaying tactics, and the contract itself appears poorly managed, allowing all kinds of breaches on the part of the ALS as to key performance indicators and reporting to the ministry.

There was a demonstration on March 15th outside the Ministry of Justice and the houses of parliament, and another is planned. Blunt has always believed we would cave in and allow these flagrant breaches of human rights to continue. He thought we knew nothing and would roll over. But we commissioned an independent report by Involvis which used a Treasury model to predict extra costs under the framework of £230 million during the first year alone. He was presented it twice by our consultant, so he can't say he wasn't warned. Every day which passes makes this freak show less funny and more expensive.

Professional interpreters and their membership organisations call on the Ministry of Justice to end it now. Our message is this: cancel the framework agreement and let's start talking about the future. We have assisted others in saving money, we can help you too. Your framework has failed and hurt you badly. We can help you recover.

Geoffrey Buckingham is chairman of The Association of Police and Court Interpreters and an active member of Interpreters for Justice, a group campaigning against the government's outsourcing of interpreter provision.

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