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Privatization of court interpreting hinders access to justice for non-English speakers in the UK

2 May 2012

The UK Ministry of Justice’s decision to adopt a privatized contract for court interpreters has severe implications regarding access to justice for minorities from non-English speaking backgrounds. Shahendra Suliman, MRG’s Conflict Prevention Programme intern, reports.

A contract between the Ministry of Justice and a translation company to provide interpreters for all courts in England and Wales has angered interpreters and frustrated judges.

Whilst previously each individual court hired freelance interpreters from a national register of qualified interpreters, under the new scheme interpreters are provided by a single company, Applied Language Solutions (ALS). The contract, which has promised to cut the annual translation bill by a third, came into effect on 1st February and has already provoked countrywide protests and boycotts.

Not only does this new deal undermine interpreters by cutting their pay and removing travel expenses for the first hour, but it appears to have had widespread implications for the justice system, particularly for people who do not speak English as their first language.

An interpreters’ demo outside the Ministry of Justice. Credit: Andy Taylor

Previous interpreters needed a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting and at least 400 hours of proven public service interpreting experience in the UK to obtain full status on the national register, as well as providing an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau disclosure check. ALS interpreters are assessed using the company’s own method which makes it difficult to determine whether they are fully qualified, for the decision rests at ALS’s discretion. Nonetheless, anecdotes backed up by statistical evidence – 60% of the 2,300 interpreters on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters have refused to work for ALS – suggest that there is a real shortage of qualified interpreters willing to work for the company.

In several cases, interpreters have failed to show up at all, resulting in people being kept in custody longer than necessary. Recently a mother of three young children was kept in jail for three days for a minor theft (such a first time offence rarely results in this) because the interpreter failed to show up. No-shows have left all parties inconvenienced and put victims through unnecessary stress and trauma. An interpreter failed to show up in the case of a vulnerable Pakistani woman who had been violently and sexually assaulted, leaving the presiding judge to brand this ‘a disgrace.’

It should go without saying that competent interpreters are crucial for a fair trial – a right which applies to both English and non-English speaking persons alike. Despite this, court clerks have had to resort to using web translations which can produce highly inaccurate results – one had to rely on Google translate to tell a defendant the details of his next hearing.  In cases where interpreters have showed up, there have been several incidents suggesting that they are not qualified for the task. One interpreter failed to understand the solicitor when he said they had to go down to the cells and didn’t understand what an oath was. A solicitor who deals with a large number of Polish cases has expressed concern that many of the new interpreters ‘don’t understand legal jargon.’

Yet perhaps a failure to interpret is better than a poor interpretation – incidents of incorrect interpretations include telling a suspect that being charged meant that they had to pay the court money, and telling a suspect charged with perverting the course of justice that they were accused of being a pervert.

Needless to say, the potential miscarriages of justice due to poor interpreting should be a huge cause for concern. In Immigration and Asylum tribunals, personal testimonies are vital in deciding whether or not a person is granted asylum or entry/leave to remain in the UK. The slightest misinterpretation could result in vulnerable people being denied entry or deported. Not only this, but the rising number of adjourned trials and the cost of keeping people in custody due to no-shows suggest that the new system may end up costing much more than the old one.

Most recently a trial collapsed at a London court after a Romanian defendant said the claimant had “beaten” them but the interpreter said “bitten.” It was only when the prosecution cross-examined the defendant the next day, asking for evidence of the biting that the defendant corrected them. The estimated cost of the resulting re-trial is £25,000. The mistake only came to light at the end of a four-day trial and the defendant – who is 13 years old – will be forced to go through the experience and give evidence once more.

protest outside Ministry of Justice
An interpreters’ demo outside the Ministry of Justice. Credit: Andy Taylor

Organizations such as the Association of Police and Court Interpreters, Professional Interpreters Alliance and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting have hit back, teaming up with Britain and Ireland’s biggest trade union Unite to launch a campaign to reverse the privatisation of court interpreting*. Protests have taken place in Manchester, Birmingham and London, with interpreters decrying poor pay and condemning the contract as a monopoly.

The Ministry of Justice has authorized courts to bypass the new system for urgent cases for the time being, however until it abandons the new scheme in its entirety non-English speaking minorities are likely to continue to experience poor/false interpretations, extra nights in custody, adjourned trials and potential miscarriages of justice.

*As of October 2020, the web page previously linked to here seems to have been permanently removed.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.