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.’