Court interpreter contract ‘unacceptable’ – top family judge

Topics: Family and children,Courts business

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  • Sir James Munby

The head of the Family Division has branded arrangements for providing court interpreters ‘unacceptable’ after he was forced to abandon a final adoption hearing as no one attended to translate for Slovak-speaking parents.

Sir James Munby (pictured) ordered Capita, which bought the smaller company given an £18m-a-year Ministry of Justice contract, to explain why neither of the two interpreters booked for a hearing on 7 May attended.


He said the response from Capita’s relationship director Sonia Facchini, disclosed a ‘concerning state of affairs’.

There were, he said, three points in Facchini's statement ‘demanding notice’.

First he noted: ‘The contractual arrangements between Capita and the interpreters it provides do not give Capita the ability to require that any particular interpreter accepts any particular assignment or even to honour any engagement which the interpreter has accepted.’

In this case, the two interpreters who accepted the assignment later cancelled.

Secondly, highlighting the late notice given to courts if bookings are cancelled, Munby said: ‘It is only at 2pm on the day before the hearing that Capita notifies the court that there is no interpreter assigned.’

The third point was the ‘revelation’ that on the day of the hearing Capita had only 29 suitably qualified Slovak interpreters on its books for court hearings that day and only 13 within a 100-mile radius of the Royal Courts of Justice.

The number was insufficient to enable the company to provide 39 Slovak interpreters requested by courts on that date, Munby said. 

Munby described the abandonment of hearings owing to the lack of interpreters as an ‘unacceptable state of affairs’.

‘It might be that something needs to be done,’ he said. 

‘Whether the underlying causes are to be found in the nature of the contract between the MoJ and HMCTS or whoever and Capita, or in the nature of the contract between Capita and the interpreters it retains, or in the sums paid respectively to Capita and its interpreters, or in an inadequate supply of interpreters… I do not know. We need to find out,’ said Munby.

The hearing abandoned on 7 May was scheduled to be the final hearing of a case concerning two children, J and S, born to Roma parents from Slovakia.

Defending the adjournment Munby said: ‘It would have been unjust, indeed inhumane, to continue with the final hearing of applications as significant as those before me.

‘Anyone tempted to suggest that an adjournment was not necessary might care to consider what our reaction would be if an English parent before a foreign court in similar circumstances was not provided with an interpreter,’ he added.

A spokeswoman for Capita said the company could not comment on individual hearings, but said Capita Translation and Interpreting is ‘committed to fulfilling requests for interpreters and translators for all of its clients’.

She said: ‘We have a process in place to advise courts directly if we are unable to meet their requirements. Regrettably, there will be some cases which are held back because of a lack of available interpreters at a specific time.’

She explained Capita does not employ interpreters, all of whom remain self-employed independent contractors, free to accept or reject booking offers as they see fit.

Courts minister Shailesh Vara said: ‘The new interpreting contract was introduced to tackle the inefficiencies and inconsistencies in the previous system — and it has already saved taxpayers £15m in its first year. 

‘The contract has delivered significant improvements so far, with record numbers of bookings now being made and fulfilled. We will continue to drive further improvement in performance and better value for the taxpayer.’

Readers' comments (31)

  • 1. If the Slovak parents come to this country to live they should be expected to learn English, and there wouldn't be a need for interpreters.

    2. Munby clearly doesn't read the LSG - the posn regarding the appalling state of the Interpreting service has been well documented for at least 2 years - yet another example of a Judge showing complete ignorance of the system in which he works...

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  • Peter Piper ....2. What is a posn?

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  • The response of Shalish Vara is laughable. If he thinks the taxpayer is saved money each time a court case is adjourned due to the lack of an interpreter then he is as big a numpty as his boss. The same sort of half-assed thinking governs the MoJ from contract procurement, to court closures, to lack of wi-fi to staff being moved around so much that no-one in HMCTS could be said to know what they are supposed to be doing to legal aid being ripped to bits.
    Grayling and his civil servant stooges along with LAA and the Ministers in MoJ have ruined a functioning system of justice and installed a large, smelly pile that resembles animal waste.

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  • It may also be down to the fact that it appears Capita has forced all the interpreters to go self employed to save paying Employer's NI, making them understandably harder to pin down...all a bit circa Gary Barlow if you ask me. With that and the pay rate cuts, I wouldn't have attended either.

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  • Go on Michael. On the ball as usual.

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  • "An English parent before a foreign court". I think Sir James needs to attend a Romanian court and experience it for himself before he utters such nonsense.......unless you can pay then you'd be stuffed (to put it in legal terms)

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  • Dear Peter Piper.

    I'll declare my position first of all - I'm an NRPSI interpreter and I have refused to sign up with Capita TI (and also turned down all direct offers of interpreting assignments from any police force or court that is part of the system that uses Capita). That's four years in the case of the Police in my region and two and a half years of surviving without what used to be the mainstay of my living. Ninety percent of what I did disappeared between August 2010 and January 2012 in two huge chunks - Police first and then courts.

    Have you considered that you don't actually know the parents concerned in this case and whether they have learned some English since they came to the UK.

    If it is the case, the English spoken by some migrants to this country may be strong enough to just get by, simply due to someone's lack of aptitude for picking up a language fluently. Some others may learn very good levels of English but not be very confident in legal proceedings. I don't really think that is something anyone should be criticised for.

    Others - using Portuguese and Spanish speakers as what I base my comments on - work in jobs or are parents and despite best efforts, not everyone has time, when working long hours, to dedicate themselves to learning fluent English.

    Many Portuguese, for instance, work in agriculture and factories where their co-workers are compatriots (although many don't) and so they almost live in a bubble of work/eat/sleep/etc/etc/etc - how do you expect these people to learn English to a standard where they understand court proceedings?

    On the other hand, I've been the interpreter in the case of some highly educated people who do speak good English. They still want an interpreter so they don't misconstrue anything.

    If I was in court in Brazil, I'd definitely want one - and I hold my interpreting qualification in the English Law category.

    I hope that sheds light on why the whole "They should speak English and we'd save money on interpreters" is a defunct and unworkable position.

    Regarding the judge, I imagine most judges are quite aware of what is going on but I'm also informed that it is highly unusual for a judge to make such coruscating criticism publicly.

    I am sure Mr Munby has been quite aware and the fact such a senior judge is speaking out is yet another huge blow for this disgraceful contract. It is a good thing this judge has made his feelings public, he should not be criticised for it.

    The contract is utterly unsalvageable and which should have been put to sleep humanely within the first 12 months, rather than remaining toothless and ineffective close to its 30th month in existence.

    As regards Shailesh Vara: another flimsy busted flush excuse for a minister whose letters must come from some sort of random MOJ nonsense generator, either that or Grayling himself is writing them all and Vara just signs them. He also has a negative side.

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  • I am sure that they could have a whip round of their mates and drum up enough cash to afford to privately pay an interpreter for 1 day for goodness sake.

    Why should it be free?

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  • This is UK. Any one going to court should speak the language of the country they are in or find someone who does and also speaks their language so they could interpret.
    Maybe someone at their local council who translates all the council documents into forty different languages could help?
    Failing that they could go back to their country of origin and have the case heard there?

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  • Good morning PP.

    Either you've really failed to understand a pretty well-argued perspective from someone with experience in the field. Or you're a troll.

    We have a blanket policy of taking no chances. Everyone gets an interpreter free at the point of use. If we make resident migrants pay for the interpreter, then we'd need to make visitors pay for one.

    For custody, until charged, we have effectively whipped someone off the streets to interview them under caution. Why should they be billed for an interpreter, especially if not eventually charged?

    For witnesses, they may be assisting an investigation of an incident they witnessed while on holiday, business, delivering goods in an HGV. They're supposed to call their mates in [Country X] and get them to send them £250.00 on PayPal?

    Oh - and there's also the small issue of impartiality.

    The ramifications of interpreters being paid for by people who - for instance - are involved in trials where the person accused is someone they know and are trying to get in trouble. That's just one example. The idea of them paying their own interpreter and its many possible outcomes is appalling beyond belief.

    By the way, as an aside, the whole interpreter debate is all centred on the wrong angle. Cost - it's apparently expensive.

    It isn't expensive. It has always been worth every last penny. It is a very skilled service and, to coin a great phrase I heard this morning, it's high time the MOJ stopped trying to squeeze champagne out of rocks.

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