Language problem: spending watchdog joins criticism of new court interpreters’ contract

The performance of the company that won the newly privatised contract for court interpretation services has been damned as ‘wholly inadequate’ by the spending watchdog. A report by the National Audit Office is critical of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for its insufficient due diligence and failure to take heed of the concerns of interpreters about the ability of Applied Language Solutions (ALS) to deliver.

In August last year the MoJ signed a new agreement for language services with ALS, now a subsidiary of the service provide Capita, for the provision of interpretation and translation services. The largest of those agreements – worth an estimated £90 million over five years – began in January this year.

  • You can read John Storer, a partner with criminal defence firm, CDA solicitors, in Lincolnshire on the brewing controversy over ALS on HERE.
  • You can read Marc Starr, a registered public service interpreter based in Manchester who works in Spanish and Portuguese, talking about his concerns on HERE.
  • The Ministry of Justice has admitted that £12m of savings predicted for the first year of would ‘probably not be achieved’.

‘So it was with some misgivings that I read that the Ministry of Justice planned to contract out interpreting requirements. 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.’
John Storer

Earlier this year a murder trial was brought to a sudden halt when the court interpreter confessed that he was simply an unqualified stand-in for his wife, who was busy. It was reported in the Daily Mail that the judge halted the trial of Rajvinder Kaur, who killed her mother-in-law with a rolling pin, when ‘the court realised interpreter Mubarak Lone was leaving out key words and phrases in his translating’. Ian Kelcey, former chair of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, has called the new arrangements ‘little short of a debacle’. ‘The problem with ALS is that the government decided to do it and chose someone who probably can’t provide the capacity. We are not sure they are using interpreters of a requisite standard,’ he told the Guardian.  ‘This dispute is about the risks of ignoring the standing of a profession that is an essential component for the smooth running of any legal process that involves people whose first language is not English,’ explained the interpreter Marc Starr on

The strongly worded NAO report damns ALS’s early performance as ‘wholly inadequate’. Its key conclusions are:

  • The MoJ’s due diligence on ALS’s successful bid was ‘not thorough enough’;
  • The MoJ ‘did not give sufficient weight to the concerns and dissatisfaction’ expressed by many interpreters;
  • The MoJ ‘underestimated the project risks’ when it decided to switch from a regional to a national rollout;
  • The  MoJ ‘allowed the contract to become fully operational before it was ready’; and
  • ALS’s performance was ‘wholly inadequate’ leading to missed performance targets and around a fifth of the interpretation work in courts and tribunals being done under old arrangements.


About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

There are 2 comments

  1. The new contract gives the appearance of savings in the department. Maybe. But it has nothing to do with the interests of justice.
    Back in February or March, Crispin Blunt MP, then a Minister in the Ministry of Justice reportedly accused interpreters of being ‘grossly overpaid’ and ‘taking advantage of the system”. This, apparently, is what had created the need to outsource the court contract. He went on to refer to “six-figure salaries”.

    Most interpreters don’t earn this kind of money. But why shouldn’t they? They are highly skilled and experienced professionals. Many lawyers and accountants do (and at the high end) and nobody thinks that’s unusual.

    What Blunt’s comments indicated was this: that he had no respect for or understanding of the degree of care and dedication that many interpreters (and translators) apply to their work. He was a Justice Minister and was therefore speaking for the government.

  2. It is encouraging to see that solicitors like David Hutchings hold such views.

    While I was initially disappointed with the NAO report, I quickly realised when reminded of the usually careful tone of such reports that it was extremely damning.

    One thing that the report could not cover, because if I am correct it is not in the remit of the NAO, is a dissection of the rationale for the change in the first place. The report seemingly had no other choice than to consider the contract as it is, with the premise being that the reasons for the changes to the system were correct.

    Fortunately, the first of the six points that submissions to the Public Accounts Committee were to be based on was exactly that: the rationale for the change.

    I have long believed that the rationale was a set-up, a gross exaggeration and distortion of the supposed problems of the old system. In as brief a manner as I can, the key issues were said to be supply of rarer languages and the time spent by end-user staff (court listings/payroll staff and Police custody sergeants, mainly) in sourcing and paying interpreters. An example given was the need to sometimes call three or four interpreters before getting one. That may well have happened on some occasions but another method used by some court staff was to email several interpreters at once, with the first to respond getting the job.

    The problems that happened on some occasions (but not all occasions, by any stretch of the imagination) were portrayed as the complete norm. An insidious and sly trick, whitewashing the entire profession as elusive, even insinuating we were unwilling to take on jobs. Interpreters cannot be expected to know when a call will come in – I had to dash from social occasions, break from translations, all sorts of short-notice need for my services and in general, I reacted – something is seriously missing between the MOJ’s version of events and my daily and weekly reality over eight years before these changes came in.

    Payroll? Well, yes, each court paid me individually and if this was a problem, the MOJ had a potential solution to both sourcing and payroll that was rolled into one, and it was sitting right under their own noses, and they chose to ignore it.

    Whereas for Police and also the criminal courts, the sourcing was done by the staff and pay was taken care of by the finance sections, for the family/civil courts, from around 2006/7 (can’t remember exactly), the MOJ had its own in-house central booking team based at Petty France, with payment taken care of by Liberata, a specialist company. It worked brilliantly – they would call me at 4pm on a Thursday for court hearings the following morning at 10am, and even sometimes on the very same day as a hearing.

    The MOJ could have looked at that and expanded it to a national booking system. They passed up that opportunity.

    Does anyone think the time spent by listings getting through to ALS-Capita’s call centre and in sorting out no-shows has saved any time and freed up their staff for whatever else they were going to be doing when freed from the arduous toil of finding interpreters?

    My final point is the vile assumptions made about our rates – read my piece on The Justice Gap and you’ll get a full picture from our side of the story: a rate considered perfectly reasonable in the early 00s is now, twelve years on, considered ‘overgenerous’. Are you joking?

    When I heard the MOJ was considering this absurdity, not only did I round up interpreters to protest, I also took the IOL’s Diploma in Translation in both of my languages, so that I had a boat to jump on. I passed both diplomas.

    I can translate 4000 words on a good day, as long as my mind is clear and I am working solidly and constantly with MS Word (PDF is more time-consuming). That, at the rates I command, particularly if it’s an urgent and very technical job, earns me double what a full day in court used to pay.

    Same for private sector interpreting – you share the duty with another person and usually command a rate that is no less than double the rate paid for a full day in court before Wheeldon slunk up in his Lambo offering up his impossible dream to the eager beavers from the MOJ and, I should add, Capita.

    The message to the MOJ is that people like me are dropping off at a hellish rate, going to other countries, doing other jobs and the longer it continues, the precious resource that the NRPSI database represented is dwindling. We have to be tempted back in and halving our rates is simply not going to tempt anyone to drive off to a Police station on a Tuesday night or spend all day in court.

    It could have been so different. It was a system that needed a few tweaks, nips, tucks. It needed a scalpel and delicate surgery. The MOJ opted for the lump hammer.


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