Tuesday, 28 February 2012

“Please Be Quiet” … The MOJ / ALS / Interpreters Saga!

This is the unabridged version of John Storer's article that appeared here on The Justice Gap.

I live and work in Boston, Lincolnshire … a fairly small market town, some 125 miles due north of London.  A town that has seen dramatic changes in the last ten years.  In 2001, the population was around 35,000. It is now around the 45,000 mark. The massive increase in population is almost exclusively down to the influx of migrant workers that have come here from other EU countries to work on the land or in the many food factories that provide most of the work in this part of the world.

Initially, the influx came from Portugal but once Poland, Lithuania and Latvia joined the EU, the whole nature of the town started to change. Shops and other businesses started up, and soon our eastern European friends were a major contribution to the financial well-being of the town and surrounding areas.

Of course, as in any society, some of our new residents were not as well-behaved as others! Pretty soon, we started to see some unpronounceable names on the court lists and interpreters became an important part of my daily life as a criminal defence lawyer. Today, some 20%-25% of our client base is non-English speaking and pretty much every court sitting has at least three interpreters present.

Over the years, we have got to know and, much more importantly, trust the interpreters we come across every day.  They play a vital role in the proper administration of justice – not just for the defence but for the police and prosecution also.  Many victims of crime, and many witnesses to crime, do not have a sufficient grasp of English to make a complaint of a crime, or give a full account of what they have seen.

Interpreters are involved at the outset – from taking complaints and witness statements, through to acting as translators during interviews with suspects, and then to assisting the court in making sure the defendant or witness understands and is understood.  They assist both prosecution and defence in statement taking and statement translation. It would be no exaggeration to say that, without them, the entire criminal justice system in our area would be in deep trouble.

So it was with some misgivings that I read a press release (ignored by most at the time) of the intention of the Ministry of Justice to contract out interpreting and translation requirements across the criminal justice network.  I started to pick up gossip from the interpreters I know that they were concerned also.

My concerns increased when it was announced that the contract had been awarded and that pretty much every interpreter I knew was refusing to sign up.  The warning signs were there at the outset; the contract was originally due to start in October last year but for some unannounced reason was postponed to 2012.

We had experienced problems before – Lincolnshire Police had entered into a contract several years ago with a company called CINTRA to provide interpreters at police stations.  There were “teething problems” at first; many of the initial interpreters sent were simply not up to the job.  This caused extra public expense, because defence solicitors had to employ their own interpreters to accompany them to the police station and the cost was borne directly by the Legal Services Commission because all police station advice is funded by them. 

However, over time the “wheat” was sorted from the “chaff” – the poor ones dropped out and we were seeing interpreters of quality and, more importantly perhaps, a working knowledge of the criminal justice system.  We started to have enough trust in them that the need for our own translators diminished to the point that we trusted the CINTRA interpreters entirely and began using them for defence work as well.

The figures are quite astonishing – in 2011, the police made 2,200 requests for interpreters, the overwhelming majority of them being for Russian, Polish and Lithuanian speakers. Perhaps I should mention here that many Latvians, although the country has its own language, have Russian as their first language

It was on 1st February that the Ministry of Justice announced that the contract had been given to a company called Applied Language Solutions (ALS), a company formed in 2003 with (it has to be said) considerable experience worldwide of supplying such services. A quick look at their website showed that, pretty much straight after the award of the contract, the company had been bought by Capita Group PLC – the UK’s largest provider of “business process outsourcing”!

So, on the face of it, the contract was in good hands. However, it soon became clear that many of the interpreters we knew and trusted had not signed up to work for ALS. This was because the “contract for services” meant that many of them would be simply unable to work for the money being offered for their services. Previously, they had been paid for a minimum of 3 hours’ work with travelling and expenses. Not overly generous when one considers that would probably be their only job of the day with no guarantee of work the following day or days.  The new contract is for an hour minimum with usually no travelling.

Anthony Walker, a spokesman for ALS is quoted as saying “The rates are fixed and non-negotiable for everyone. This rate of pay is £22 an hour for a Tier 1 linguist and £20 per hour for a Tier 2 linguist.

“These two categories being the ones that will be required to deliver the great bulk of all the work done by linguists in criminal justice settings. A very small portion of criminal justice work will fall in to the Tier 3 category at £16.”

There are few of us who can afford to work full-time with the possibility of only earning £22 in a day, let alone £16!

The contract, worth £300M over five years, is supposed to save the nation £18M a year. Quite how this adds up, when the MoJ have previously said they already spend £60M a year on interpreters / translators, is beyond me.  What is clear, however, is that Capita obviously thought this was a company well worth snapping up and clearly saw huge profits.

Anyway, there I was at Boston Magistrates Court on the second or third day of the new system. I was court duty solicitor, and was told there was a young Rumanian lad in custody. He’d been charged with (and admitted when interviewed by the police) a very large shop theft. He’d never been in court before.  I was told an interpreter had been booked for 9.30am.

By 11.00am, and no interpreter had arrived, I started to make enquiries. The police confirmed they had booked one, but then rang me back to tell me they had been told by ALS that “no one had picked up the job”.  I could not even explain to my client (who had not had the benefit of legal advice whilst at the police station – his own choosing, I hasten to add) why there was a delay.

Several phone calls later, I was told an interpreter would be with me for 1.00pm. She arrived at 1.35pm, having driven many miles from another county.  I was pleased to see she was nationally-registered.

Let me explain, or let me let the National Register of Public Service Interpreters explain;

“The National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) maintains a register of professional, qualified and accountable public service interpreters. Using the National Register to find an interpreter ensures that you not only employ a qualified practitioner but that the interpreter can be held accountable should their conduct or competence fall below the high standards expected of a Registered Public Service Interpreter”

So I was sure she would know what she was doing. And she did.  We dealt with the case very swiftly after her arrival.  She then began to tell me some real horror stories about the quality of some of her “colleagues” who had joined ALS and who held no qualifications at all.  For instance, she told me that she had heard a custody sergeant refuse a detainee bail because he was “a flight risk”. Anyone in the criminal justice system would know that this meant he might abscond and fail to surrender to his bail at court. However, this was translated by the “interpreter” into “You must stay here to stop you catching a plane”

Still, I was hopeful. Here was an interpreter who knew her stuff. Perhaps there would be others like her?  I have not yet found out; she is the only interpreter who has turned up for any of my cases.  So far, I am personally aware of sixteen cases where the interpreter has simply failed to attend.  Many of these have been for defendants in custody; one was charged with murder!

ALS have confirmed that “some” cases have been cancelled because the firm was unable to provide interpreters.

"Unfortunately that has been true in some cases which is something that we are working extremely hard to resolve," an ALS spokesperson said. Actually, Mr or Ms “ALS spokesperson”, this has been true in the majority of cases in our area and it is clear that the same thing has happened in courts up and down the country.

Another (or possibly the same) spokesperson acknowledged that there have been circumstances where it had not been possible to fulfill a booking at short notice.

She added: ‘Prior to rollout there was limited accurate management information available regarding the expected daily volumes of short notice interpreter requests.

Hello!  You’ve just entered into a 5 year, £300M contract!  Are you seriously saying you did not actually know what was expected of you to fulfill that contract?

Social media networks, such as Twitter, soon started to highlight the problems courts were facing. This was picked up by more traditional media outlets and articles have appeared in The Guardian, The Lawyer, The Law Society Gazette, and the BBC website. Basically, (and interpreters must be given credit for running a publicity campaign that puts us lawyers to shame), a fuss was made. The fuss got attention

So much so, in fact, that Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) issued a press release last week.

"With immediate effect HMCTS will revert to the previous arrangements for all bookings due within 24 hours at the magistrates' courts … we will revert to previous arrangements for urgent bookings required for bail applications, deports and fast track applications in the first tier tribunal immigration and asylum and urgent bookings in the asylum support tribunal."

"We understand that some staff and judiciary have sympathy with existing interpreters. We must however do all we can to encourage sign-up to the new arrangements – the new contract has the potential to bring significant benefits to both interpreters and the justice system as a whole."

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of NRPSI-registered interpreters see no reason to help the MoJ out of a mess wholly of its own making and are not cooperating with this relaxation of the contract. 

Things will only improve when ALS increase the rates of pay it is offering, thus tempting qualified, highly-skilled, interpreters to sign up with them. However, their new masters at Capita are unlikely to be happy with the profits from the contract being reduced – probably substantially reduced.

In the meantime, public money and court time is being wasted by delayed or aborted hearings.  One suspects there is “limited accurate management information available” to determine the actual cost but it is increasing by the day.

I cannot end this article without commenting on my concerns about the quality of those interpreters so far signed up with ALS.  I have received anecdotal evidence (which I have no reason to doubt) of a lack of experience, knowledge of procedure, and even the language they are supposed to be translating.

The figures do tend to suggest that there will be a diminution of quality.  ALS claims that they have signed 3,000 interpreters to run this contract. There are not 3,000 nationally-registered interpreters (the NRPSI website says there are “over 2,000”).  Of those members, at least 50% - and probably more than 60% - have refused to enrol with ALS.  I would be greatly surprised if even 30% of the 3,000 interpreters have the necessary qualifications and experience to work in the criminal justice system

I headed this article “Please be quiet”.  Some explanation is required.  Probably the most important thing that is said to a detainee when in custody at a police station is the caution.  It’s complicated for most lay persons in English, so its careful and accurate translation is crucial to the course of justice. Every day, what is said after that caution is administered impacts on just about every trial in every criminal court.

The caution starts “You do not have to say anything …” reminding the interviewee of his or her right to remain silent and not answer questions. A basic right at the heart of criminal justice – the right not to self-incriminate. The caution then goes on to say “… but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something you later rely on in court”.  This reminds the detainee that remaining silent may impact upon his trial and that the court can draw a conclusion that his remaining silent was because he had no defence to offer, or that a subsequent explanation at trial may not be believed.

It is therefore extremely worrying that an interpreter of my acquaintance, one of the most experienced (and trusted) in the area, recounts an interview where “You do not have to say anything” was translated by the interpreter as “Please be quiet”

I imagine that the knock-on effects of this contract will be occupying the Court of Appeal in the months to come!

Can I end by thanking Yelena McCAFFERTY at Talk Russian for assistance with some statistics

Footnote: Since John wrote this - a week ago, now - nothing has changed. Today, up and down the country, courts will be without interpreters, the administration of criminal justice grinds ever slower, and more and more public money is being wasted. The interpreters (the proper ones, that is) remain solid. An impasse has been reached. Someone will have to back down, and I doubt very much that it will be the interpreters!


  1. Dear CDA,
    Thank you very much for publishing this article. I am "one of them" - the old RPSI interpreter - "you know the one who actually can do the job".
    Few facts has to be corrected:
    - there are more than 60% interpreters from NRPSI who signed that they do not work for ALS and never will,
    - there is no way for us to work for ALS - no money and conditions will ever change it,
    - there is also no way for us to work for similar agencies like ALS.
    The only way is to start proper discussion with interpreters' organizations.
    Till than we will rather leave profession.
    If you want to know more - feel free to visit http://www.linguistlounge.org/ or http://www.facebook.com/InterpretersGB.

  2. Dear CDA
    This is a welcome article. The same situation exists within the British Sign Language (BSL)interpreting profession. Despite the 2 major representative bodies objecting to the outsourcing process, it still went ahead. ALS then subcontracted the BSL contract to a company called Clarion, who under the terms of that sub-contract were unable to offer appropriate T&Cs and payment.

    The majority of qualified BSL interpreters are refusing to supply to the ALS/MoJ contract, under whatever guise. Although Clarion do employ staff interpreters who can cover some of the assignments.

    This whole situation is a farce, especially when the organisation that was awarded the contract is no longer in control of its destiny haven been taken over by a larger corporate shark. I wasn't aware that government contracts could be bought and sold at whim!

    The sad thing is that the existing system worked. There was a National Agreement in place that recommended only the most qualified interpreters (of any language) would be booked by the courts. Courts had the choice of engaging an interpreter directly, or by going through specialist agencies who could supply appropriately.

    Ultimately its the end user who suffers. It is bad enough for a foreign language speaker to be excluded from the legal system, but for Deaf people who are 'doubly discriminated' due to their deafness and their language needs, it can be an isolating experience from initial arrest, for example, right through to the court proceedings.

    I think its high time that the MoJ gracefully accepted that this contract was a poor decision and to consign it to the waste paper basket.

    Visual Language Professionals