Interpreting and translation services and the Applied Language Solutions contract - Justice Committee Contents

2  Changing arrangements for the provision of interpreter services

The previous arrangements

14.  The Framework Agreement replaced a range of arrangements for the provision of language services in the justice sector. The main model was for registered public service interpreters—freelance, self-employed individuals—to be called directly by courts, police forces and other criminal justice agencies. Interpreters were identified primarily using the National Register of Professional Service Interpreters (NRPSI)—which required registrants to hold a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting in law, health or local government and made them subject to a code of professional conduct—and they were expected to have Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) disclosures. Access to the National Register required payment of a licence fee.[13]

15.  In some courts which chose not to use the National Register local arrangements applied; some interpreters worked without staff knowing whether they had appropriate qualifications and CRB disclosures. Specialist agencies, panel arrangements with a central booking team and adhoc local arrangements were used by the then Tribunal Service. Although interpreters were paid locally, a fee structure was set through a national agreement discussed below. Thus similar services were being booked, provided and paid for in different ways.

16.  The various arrangements were governed by the National agreement on arrangements for the use of interpreters, translators, and language service professionals in investigations and proceedings within the criminal justice system, established in 1997. The Agreement represented the culmination of the recommendations of a series of reviews of civil and criminal justice. The Runciman Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, established after the death of Mrs Iqbal Begum was related to inaccurate court interpreting, recommended in 1993 that only trained and qualified interpreters be used in court.[14] In response NRPSI was set up along with a qualifying exam, the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI). Lord Woolf's 1996 review of the civil justice system Access to Justice recognised a need for a "highly qualified interpreting profession that was both accountable and sustainable in order to support public services and in particular the courts".[15] Later, in 1998 the Trials Issues Group[16] recommended the exclusive use of NRPSI interpreters when selecting face-to-face interpreters for criminal investigations as well as court proceedings.[17] The Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) developed other accredited qualifications, mapped against independent and international standards, including a Diploma in Translating and a Certificate in Bilingual Skills.

17.  The Agreement was an evolving document. It was revised in 2002 after a further appraisal of the arrangements conducted as part of Lord Justice Auld's wider review of criminal courts in 2001 proposed "a review of the levels of payment to interpreters with a view to encouraging more and the best qualified to undertake this work and to establishing a national scale of pay". It was revised again in 2007 and 2011.[18] The National Agreement required: every interpreter working in courts and police stations to be registered with one of the recommended registers i.e. NRPSI, CIOL, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and the Association of Police and Court Interpreters (ACPI); spoken language interpreters to be registered with the NRPSI; a determined effort to be made to obtain a registered interpreter; and specified alternative arrangements that should be used only if no registered interpreter could be found, and delay or rescheduling was not possible.[19] Where an interpreter was drawn from sources recommended in the National Agreement they were subject to a code of conduct and to disciplinary procedures.[20] There were parallel developments in interpreting arrangements for UK Border Agency and immigration tribunals.[21]

Problems with the previous arrangements

18.  The MoJ described the rationale for change as stemming from fundamental "shortcomings, inconsistency and inefficiency" in the previous arrangements, leaving the Department and its agencies potentially exposed to "unacceptable risks".[22] For example, security and quality checks were inconsistent, complaints were not dealt with in a timely or efficient manner, and the booking and payment systems were time-consuming to administer for court staff.

19.  An internal audit report in January 2010 criticised some aspects of the then Courts and Tribunals Services' handling of interpreter bookings. Specifically, these services sometimes used interpreters from sources other than the NRPSI; had weak control systems; and lacked accurate financial and management information.[23] Ms Beasley, Director General of Finance and Corporate Services at the Ministry of Justice, explained: "[…] each court and tribunal was booking its own interpreters. They had quite often paper copies of a list that was out of date. There was no proper complaints procedure. There was no ability to influence. If an interpreter had not performed well in one court, there was no system that ensured that they didn't then operate in different courts".[24] In July 2011, the MoJ reportedly told stakeholders that there had been "concerns that NRPSI registration does not necessarily guarantee quality. The evidence is anecdotal, but consistent enough to warrant actions."[25]

20.  Representatives of interpreters and the National Register acknowledged that there were some concerns with the previous system amongst practitioners. In particular, these related to the lack of an independent intermediary for commissioning interpreters, and the adequacy of control and disciplinary procedures within the profession.[26] For example, the Society of Office Metropolitan Interpreters UK Ltd (SOMI), which represents metropolitan police interpreters, told us it had concerns regarding quality standards but had wished to retain existing qualifications and independent regulation.[27] Legal interpreters also sought a properly regulated profession, with corresponding professional standards and safeguards.[28] According to Ms Madeleine Lee of the Professional Interpreters' Alliance (PIA) and Mr Nick Rosenthal of ITI, similar problems continue to exist in the current system.[29] Notwithstanding these problems, CIOL felt that it was "unfortunate" that the MoJ "took heed of a small group of vociferous interpreters who, for their own reasons, were critical of standards bodies at the time."[30]

21.  Ms Lee believed that problems arose from the National Agreement being only a guidance document, and the existence of a range of routes for commissioning interpreters. As a result there were people working for courts and tribunals who were not registered with the NRPSI, and who were not professionally qualified or experienced.[31] The profession is not statutorily regulated. Anyone who can speak two languages may offer their services as an interpreter.[32]

22.  Another problem with the old system was lack of timeliness and inefficiency in the complaints and disciplinary processes related to the National Register. Mr Sangster, Chair of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, explained how these processes worked:

"a complaint was made to the national register and was put to a screening body made up of lay and interpreter members to identify whether there was a case to be investigated. If there was such a case, it was passed to the disciplinary committee, which sought evidence from all parties and undertook a hearing that all parties were able to attend. A view was then taken as to the validity or otherwise of the complaint and, if it was found to be valid, what penalty was appropriate. Those penalties went from warnings through to suspension and dismissal."[33]

He admitted that there were administrative inefficiencies in these processes at the time but noted that due process had to be followed in investigating complaints and that this inevitably took time; he also did not believe that immediate suspension by a voluntary regulator while an investigation was conducted was appropriate.[34]

23.  The NAO agreed with the MoJ that there were "strong reasons" for changing the old system, citing systematic inefficiencies and poor controls and shortages of interpreters in some languages.[35] On the other hand, according to the Chair of the Magistrates' Association, Mr Fassenfelt, magistrates considered that the previous arrangement delivered a reasonable service; their only concerns centred on monitoring of interpreters' skills, experiences and knowledge.[36] A magistrate from the Suffolk Bench told us that he had been unable to recall a single occasion in the previous 12 years of the bench not being provided with an interpreter.[37] Mr Atkinson, Chair of the Criminal Law Committee of the Law Society, was similarly positive: from his perspective legal practitioners had found that the existing system worked smoothly.[38] He noted, however, a particular problem with delays in what he described as "multi-handed cases" i.e. cases in which a number of defendants and witnesses who spoke the same language were being interviewed, creating an unusually high demand for one particular language.[39] The European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association (EULITA) stated that it regarded the high standards of interpreting in England and Wales, and the National Register and Diploma underpinning it, as beacons of good practice for other countries in the European Union.[40]

24.  Notwithstanding clear administrative inefficiencies within the variety of previous arrangements for the provision of interpreting services to the courts, we conclude that there do not appear to have been any fundamental problems with the quality of services, where they were properly sourced i.e. through arrangements that were underpinned by the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, with interpreters qualified in the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting, and under the terms set out by the National Agreement.

13   This has now been replaced with a registration fee for interpreters. Back

14; In the case of Iqbal Begum {R. v. Iqbal Begum; Court of Appeal: 22 April 1985 {1991} 93 Cr.App. R. 96} found that the Appellant`s trial had been a nullity in that the interpreter engaged by the defence had been far from competent in the Appellant`s languages and accordingly that her purported plea of "Guilty" to her husband`s murder had not been a proper one. The conviction was quashed and with the concurrence of the Crown she pleaded "Guilty" to manslaughter and was sentenced in a manner which resulted in her immediate release. She subsequently committed suicide. See Ev w110 Back

15   Ev 42 Back

16   Membership of the Group included: Association of Chief Police Officers; Bar Council; Crown Prosecution Service; Court Service; HM Customs and Excise; Home Office; Judiciary; Justices' Clerks' Society; Law Society; Lord Chancellor's Department; Magistrates' Association; Victim Support; and the National Probation Service.  Back

17  Back

18 and /http:/ Back

19   Office for Criminal Justice Reform, National Agreement on Arrangements for the Use of Interpreters, Translators and Language Service Professionals in Investigations and Proceedings within the Criminal Justice System, 2007 Back

20   NRPSI, CIOL, APCI and ITI all have codes of professional conduct and transparent, published procedures, including for appeals. See Ev 120. Back

21   Ev 48 Back

22   Ev 30 Back

23   Ibid. Back

24   Q 213 Back

25   Ev w20 Back

26   Ev w51; Q 7 [Mr Sangster] Back

27   Ev w39 Back

28   Q 1 Back

29   Qq 1, 5 Back

30   Ev w51 Back

31   Q 1 Back

32   Ev w5 Back

33   Q 9 [Mr Sangster] Back

34   See also Ev w124 Back

35   The National Audit Office, The Ministry of Justice's language services contract, September 2012 Back

36   Q 39 Back

37   Ev w17 Back

38   Q 40 Back

39   Q 43 Back

40   Ev w01 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 6 February 2013