Interpreter problems ‘unacceptable’ says ministry

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The Ministry of Justice has criticised the ‘unacceptable’ number of problems in the first weeks of a controversial new contract to run court interpreting services.

It has emerged this week that a trial hearing at Leeds Crown Court had to be called off because no one was available to translate for the Czech defendant. The aborted trial is set to cost the court service thousands of pounds in legal fees and other costs.

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It is one of a litany of cases highlighted by professional interpreters since the MoJ’s exclusive contract with Applied Language Solutions (ALS) began on 1 February.

The government has already allowed courts and tribunals to appoint their own interpreters rather than going through ALS’s hub. It has today made its first public censure of its own contractor.

An MoJ spokesman said: ‘There have been an unacceptable number of problems in the first weeks of full implementation of the contract and we have asked the contractor to take urgent steps to improve performance.

‘We remain committed to ensuring the rights and needs of those who require interpreters are safeguarded, and are monitoring the system on a daily basis.’

A court worker at Leeds Crown Court confirmed that the Czech national was due to be tried for affray and two counts of possession of a bladed implement in public, but the trial was halted on Wednesday morning. The MoJ says there will be a re-trial in April.

It was reported that the judge in the case, Judge Robert Bartfield, warned the aborted trial will cost thousands of pounds and he apologised to the jurors, witnesses and defendant himself whose time was wasted.

Czech interpreter Dr Zuzana Windle, a former director of the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance based in Leeds, said she would have been happy to work on the case if ALS had not been involved.

However, she added: ‘I am not prepared to subject myself to the degrading prospect of having to pay for an agency assessment and working for ridiculously low rates.’

ALS chief executive Gavin Wheeldon responded to growing criticism earlier this week by increasing mileage rates for staff and offering a £5 incentive to interpreters accepting bookings through an online system. He promised there would be an improvement in the company’s performance, but interpreters are reporting a host of delayed proceedings.

A website set up by interpreters has received dozens of anecdotes from people with examples of poor performance.

There are claims that non-English speaking defendants are being kept for extra nights in custody because no one is available to translate their case, whilst immigration tribunals are said to have been adjourned due to an absence of interpreters. Labour has called for an urgent inquiry into how the contract with ALS, which was bought by Capita in December, was negotiated.

A spokesman said: ‘Tough questions need to be asked. How did this debacle happen? It's just another example of poorly considered, rushed cuts by a ministry that accepted cuts that go too far and too fast.’

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