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Cost savings on court interpreting services are anything but

Professional interpreters are boycotting courts because of new pay arrangements.

The Scales of Justice on top of the Old Bailey
The Scales of Justice on top of the Old Bailey. Photograph: Getty Images

Whenever I am woken up on Saturday morning by a phone call, I know yet another blow has been dealt to British taxpayers. For it's almost certainly a magistrates' court requesting an interpreter to replace a no-show. If you missed the (surprisingly few) headlines dedicated to the recent confusion in courts, here is the story so far.

Until this year, courts used to book registered public service interpreters directly. On 1 February 2012, a new agreement was put in place, supposedly to make the system more efficient. The contract privatising court interpreting services in England and Wales was won by Applied Language Solutions (ALS), owned by the outsourcing firm Capita, which has promised to cut the annual £60m interpreting bill by 20 per cent. This figure, £12m per year, however attractive in the current climate, has two flaws: no one can see how it was derived, nor how it can be achieved.

Geoffrey Buckingham, the chairman of the Association of Police and Court Interpreters (APCI), said of ALS' target: “We first heard about it in September 2010, in a meeting with the MoJ. It was given as a ballpark figure, based on nothing solid and arrived at without any consultation.” APCI presented a number of documents to the MoJ, indicating that the spending is likely to increase as a result of outsourcing. This prediction turned out to be correct. Keeping people in custody while hearings are delayed costs money, as do appeals caused by poor interpreting. Buckingham also spoke of “the weekly humiliation of the criminal justice system”, referring to a number of cases adjourned because of interpreters' unprofessionalism. That's before you start counting the human costs of what appears to be a classical example of privatisation gone wrong.

It's not only the opponents of the Framework Agreement that point out its downsides – the MoJ now admits the savings may not be as great. Justice Minister Lord McNally said ALS had made “a very poor start to this contract” and that “some of the original estimates of a £12m saving in this first year will probably not be achieved.” Baroness Coussins, an independent cross-bench peer, was sceptical about the data supplied by ALS: “These figures come without any independent verification or audit and they tell a very different story from the complaints we are hearing daily from judges.” Indeed, it's hard to see how the MoJ can effectively monitor the quality of these services. Working for courts, I often wondered if anyone could give me any post-assignment feedback and once asked a clerk to fill in an improvised form; he was unable to write more than “was of assistance to judge.” Proper assessment would be too costly, whereas a certificate issued by an independent body is at least some guarantee that the person sitting in the dock is not going to call the defendant, accused of perverting the course of justice, a pervert.

The chaos in courtrooms was initially put down to “teething troubles”. An MoJ spokesperson admitted: “There have been an unacceptable number of problems in the first weeks of the contract” – thanks to incompetent interpreters who have failed to turn up on some occasions and made irreparable mistakes on others. When a Romanian interpreter mispronounced a defendant's statement, saying “bitten” instead of “beaten”, a retrial had to be ordered at Snaresbrook Crown Court, after the error was admitted. This four-day case is estimated to cost taxpayers £25,000; another one, in Leicester, which collapsed after three weeks for a similar reason, will be even more expensive. That ALS uses unqualified “linguists” is no secret; to prove this, a frustrated professional successfully registered her dead pet with the company.

Previously interpreters received a flat fee of £85, a lower quarter-hourly rate after three hours and were paid for travel time and expenses. This has been replaced by an hourly rate of £16, often with no travel reimbursement. No wonder the majority of professional interpreters are boycotting the ASL contract. Their protest outside the Houses of Parliament in April was strong but fruitless; still, Interpreters for Justice campaign continues. To keep the MoJ under pressure, activists go on writing to their MPs, signing petitions and reporting substandard cases online. Yelena McCafferty, an experienced court interpreter, said on behalf of her colleagues: “We feel the new principles are both unfair and completely unworkable from the practical point of view. Many interpreters have left the profession to try their skills elsewhere.” Asked about the MoJ's response, she added: “Not only are they failing to monitor the performance delivered – or undelivered – by ALS, they are also turning a blind eye to everything we have exposed in the media and on our campaign website.”

APCI submitted their own proposal aimed at improving court interpreting services nearly two years ago, but got no answer from the MoJ. The ministry seems to be less interested in cost reduction than Cambridgeshire Constabulary, which shashed their interpreting expenses via better management rather than payment cuts. “The Framework Agreement is dying a painful death,” said Buckingham. “I think it should be put to sleep.”

Let's hope someone is going to listen to the voice of reason. This would mean less disruption in courts, and in my home at weekends.