Lost in translation

by Emer Morrison

Being on trial is an intimidating process. Understanding the charges and evidence against you is pivotal to making this process more bearable and to gaining a fair trial. For many this makes the service of an interpreter both in court and when in conference with their legal team a necessity.

Between January and April of this year 26,059 people requested the provision of a courtroom interpreter. Over half of these requests concerned criminal law proceedings and 142 different languages were used. Speedy and quality provision of interpreters is not cheap. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the government wished to make savings. However, the manner in which it has chosen to do so is proving to be expensive in terms of legal costs and the quality of justice provided. The company to whom the government has entrusted this vital function, in the form of a sixty million pound contract, was ALS (Applied Language Solutions). The firm has come under fire from interpreters, judges and lawyers and the manner in which the contract was awarded is now the subject of investigation by MPs.

The Ministry of Justice’s aim was to improve efficiency and make savings of £18 million a year. However, as many  as 1,000 registered court room interpreters have refused to work for ALS.  This is due to a reduction in pay, refusal to provide travelling expenses and mistrust of the quality of the firm’s grading system.  ALS has also been criticised by judges for the inadequate training of interpreters and failure on occasion to show up. This has both a financial and human cost. A number of defendants have had to wait longer in custody as no interpreter could be found in time for their bail hearing and judges have considered making orders for wasted costs against ALS.

It is also worth noting that interpreters in the UK were never grossly overpaid despite the assertion of  Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Crispin Blunt.  They earned £26,000 pa on average. This is more or less in line with the average national wage and, given the unique skill set and value of the service interpreters provide, hardly seems excessive. One could also make remarks about people in glasshouses but given the coalitions current popularity or lack thereof to do so would seem redundant.

In an era where austerity is the watch word and many are affected by budget cuts it is easy to see a cut, which primarily affects those in the legal profession and non-English speakers, being amongst the less controversial.  Perhaps this is why coverage on the matter in the national press has gone largely unnoticed. However, if appealing to the widespread affection and love the public have  for criminal lawyers and defendants is a foolhardy strategy, perhaps appealing to their purse strings and sense of fair play will work.  The expense of rearranging cases and the wasted costs incurred by prolonged trials makes it implausible that the award of this contract will result in the savings envisaged.

Equally, given that ECHR case law establishes that the right to fair trial under art 6(3) encompasses the provision of a interpreter and the case of Kamasinski makes it clear the interpreter must be of a certain quality, the potential for lengthy and costly litigation over whether the current system complies with this requirement is apparent.

More fundamentally, the notion that like cases should be treated alike militates against anyone waiting longer for bail or being denied a fair trial simply because they speak a different language. Interpreters who do the commendable job of speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves should not be allowed to silently fall victims to inefficient and pernicious budget cuts.

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