Ministry of Justice officials were warned two years ago that a central contract for courtroom interpreter services would lead to wrongful detentions, the Gazette has learned. Emails from a body representing interpreters also warned in 2010 that members would boycott the scheme.
The MoJ and its contractor Applied Language Solutions (ALS) have faced a barrage of criticism since the new hub arrangement began on 1 February, with reports of trials and immigration hearings postponed because no one was available to interpret.
The government this week told parliament it was unaware of any problems with the service until 14 February - five days after the Gazette first reported serious flaws. The MoJ now says it expects immediate improvements, after admitting early problems were ‘unacceptable’. ALS said it is investigating complaints and that performance is already getting better.
In a dossier sent to the MoJ in 2010, Zuzana Windle, then-director of the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance, said attempts to contract regional police work to an agency were having a detrimental effect on people from ethnic minorities.
She warned that custody officers had been forced to obtain a third of interpreters from alternative sources, with suspects detained for up to 30 hours because no interpreters were available. The fear was that similar problems would arise if an agency provided interpreters for courts and tribunals.
Windle said that ‘the position of our members is that they will not work for agencies and, should the contract go ahead, they will seek to leave the profession’.
At the time, the MoJ said concerns were being considered and reassurances had already been given that the service would operate successfully.
Hearings across the country were delayed this week because of absent interpreters.
A trial at Leeds Crown Court involving a Czech national charged with affray and possession of a bladed implement was halted, with the delay set to costs thousands of pounds. Further problems have been reported to the Gazette in Peterborough, Bradford, Stoke-on-Trent, Stratford in London and North Shields.
Some freelance interpreters have also raised concerns that agency staff are arriving at courts or tribunals without being properly vetted.
The MoJ denied that agency interpreters are unqualified or have not undergone appropriate Criminal Records Bureau checks. A spokesman said: ‘The agreement with ALS is clear about the standards that are expected of interpreters including qualifications, experience and vetting. There is an additional requirement for all face-to-face interpreters to undertake an assessment which is run independently of the supplier by selected universities.’
A spokeswoman for ALS said resources have increased ‘considerably’ in the last two weeks.
‘Assigning qualified and experienced linguists to assignments and insisting on continuous professional development, while reducing operational inefficiencies, remains the focus of our service,’ she added.