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

4  Early operational problems and their impact

Early operational problems

50.  When ALS began operating nationally under the Framework Agreement it faced immediate operational difficulties in its provision of services to HM Courts and Tribunals Service, including a lack of registered interpreters, resulting in poor quality of interpreting services and difficulties in responding to demand, and the adequacy and transparency of the complaints process and the systems underpinning the online portal. We sought evidence on prisons' experience of using the services of ALS but our witnesses reported no problems or difficulties of any significance.[86] Some examples are described in the box below.
Case studies

In the case of R v Rajvinder Kaur at Winchester Crown Court an unqualified man, Mr Lone, stood in for his wife as an interpreter during a murder trial.[87]

An interpreter working for ALS told us:

"I have been told by the company that if I agree to interpret for counsel/probation/ anyone else outside of the courtroom, it is 'in my own time' and I will not be paid for it! How can the system function?! Time down in the cells with a defendant to explain after the decision what the next steps are, appeal etc or outside the courtroom by probation officers is not factored in, and interpreters are expected to try and persuade the court clerk to sign them off at a different time from when the case finishes."[88]

Another respondent to the online forum said:

Even the easiest legal terms were totally misinterpreted. The oath was interpreted as "the proof I will give" - "give evidence" is the simplest of the legal terms used in Court; and astonishingly, the Police's caution (defendant's recorded interview was read out in Court) was interpreted as "you should not say anything. When legal terms such as "burden of proof is reversed", "evidence by way of rebuttal", or even simpler terms as "contemporary notes" were being discussed, Capita's worker just kept an worrying silence.[89]

A defence solicitor explained to us:

[My] client could speak little, if any English and after an hour wait for an Interpreter (which the Police told the Court Clerk they had contacted) nobody had attended. I was unable to adequately explain the situation to the client and therefore unable to provide any alternative address to the Court. Clearly on a Saturday there was no chance of trying to obtain alternative accommodation which is usually arranged through the Probation Service. Therefore the client had to be remanded in custody until the Monday when through the "Russian" Interpreter who attended he was able to secure bail having put forward an alternative address. It was clear that had he had an Interpreter and being furnished with that information bail could and should have been granted on the Saturday.[90]

Data Source: Justice Committee e-Consultation


51.  Our evidence suggested that ALS' poor performance could be demonstrated by a range of indicators. In the first week the level of fulfilment against HMCTS' requirement for interpreters ran at a mere 40%, against a performance target of 98%; the fulfilment rate in the first month was 65%.[91] Over two thousand complaints were received in the first quarter of operation, comprising 13% of assignments that ALS fulfilled.[92] Fulfilment figures simply represent an indicator of the level of supply against demand, not quality.[93] According to the NAO, no quality associated KPIs were included in the Framework Agreement as the assumption was that after checks and assessments only interpreters of the right quality would be supplied to jobs.


52.  The majority of the evidence we received about the performance of interpreters booked through ALS related to courts rather than tribunals, and in particular to criminal justice cases. For example, the Law Society explained that it had not received significant concerns from a wide spectrum of the profession but was aware of "significant problems in criminal courts".[94] The evidence we did receive regarding tribunals, including from the Senior Presiding Judge, indicated that performance in tribunals may be less consistent than in courts.[95] While we received limited evidence specifically related to problems regarding the translation element of the contract, Professional Interpreters for Justice believed that the concerns expressed about the quality of face-to-face interpreting were equally valid to the quality of translation services provided by ALS to the justice sector.[96]

The experience of professional interpreters

53.  As Professional Interpreters for Justice noted, it is difficult for the public to assess an interpreter's performance as they would not have a mastery of both languages. By definition it is unlikely that a defendant, witness, or victim who is being interpreted for will realise that they are not being given accurate translations, although in some cases it has been obvious to them and to magistrates, for example.[97] Since February 2012, interpreter members have been attending courts across the UK as a means of professional development, and, at the same time they have monitored the attendance and performance of ALS workers and compiled dossiers of evidence on underperformance. One interpreter, Yelena McCafferty, established a website,, to enable court observers and court users, including solicitors, to submit evidence of ALS' performance. The site received high volumes of complaints regarding a failure on behalf of ALS to provide interpreters and the supply of unqualified, inexperienced and incompetent interpreters; by August 2012 it had gathered 137 such reports and 178 newspaper reports.[98] She also documented instances gathered from interpreters of: trials being halted and delayed as a result of failure to supply interpreters; verdicts being mistranslated; evidence being distorted; and bail conditions misinterpreted or omitted. [99]

The experience of the magistracy and legal professionals

54.  A few months after the implementation of the Framework Agreement the Magistrates' Association requested feedback from its members on their experiences of how the new service was working in practice within the magistrates' court system. Approximately one-third of areas responded and, according to the Association, these represented a wide geographical spread across England and Wales and between rural areas and cities. A small minority (10%) of respondents thought the service had improved with the new arrangements; they found the system more flexible now and thought it had facilitated the availability of a greater range of languages. The nature of experiences of the vast majority of those who provided feedback, and individual magistrates who provided evidence to us directly, was comparable to the incidents that had been collated by professional interpreters. According to the Law Society and individual barristers and solicitors, legal professionals—who rely on ALS interpreting services to interact with their client and to ensure that their client understands the proceedings of the court and the implications of decisions regarding their plea and bail, for example—had experienced similar problems.[100]

The impact on court and tribunal proceedings

55.  There are a number of areas which the majority of respondents to the Magistrates Association survey and individual magistrates' courts had found problematic with the ALS contract. Some problems primarily related to organisational issues. For example, interpreters had been unable to stay for the whole duration of court proceedings or had failed to arrive at the right time; moreover some interpreters were directed to the wrong court house.[101] Another key problem for magistrates' courts, particularly those more distant from large urban areas, has been the location of interpreters, predominantly those with oversubscribed or with less common language skills; the implementation of the contract with ALS has meant that interpreters have had to be brought in from further afield, at the cost of travel expenses and court time, despite the presence of local interpreters who had been used prior to the ALS contract.[102] ALS had also allocated translators who did not speak the required language, or with the wrong language or dialect skills; there are examples of a Kurdish interpreter being sent for a Bengali client and a Portuguese speaker being provided for a Spanish client.[103]

56.  Another problem was that interpreters were reported as frequently having performed inadequately in their role. Evidence from solicitors and magistrates suggested that some interpreters did not have sufficient language skills, either in the required language or English, necessary to ensure the full understanding of the defendant.[104] In some cases magistrates had been forced to rely on their own language skills, and to use online translation tools.[105]

57.  There also appears to have been a lack of knowledge of court etiquette and process, for example, interpreters not informing the court if they were going to be late, not dressing appropriately, or failing to whisper.[106] There have also been cases in which the interpreter has failed to accurately translate everything that has been said to the client and what the client has said to the court. Some interpreters have been unaware that they are required to give precise translations and unaware that they are required to swear an oath to court. Under such circumstances solicitors reported that their clients had been unable to comprehend the decisions and proceedings of the court and had been unable to adequately instruct their advocate as to their desired direction.[107] Mr Jeremy Lynn, a barrister, told us that he had found interpreters unable to cope with the language in court, words which he described as the "everyday fare of a criminal court" like, for example, indictment, joint enterprise, conspiracy, which "leave this new breed of interpreter floundering".[108] He also expressed concerns about the behaviour of interpreters in court.

58.  Mr Fassenfelt raised two consequences of requests for interpreters being unfulfilled that most concerned him. First, an individual may be remanded in custody as a consequence of no interpreter being available and, secondly, a trial may collapse, inconveniencing witnesses and, if the defendant was previously remanded in custody, putting them back there.[109] We heard from a magistrate from South East Suffolk who had personally observed the emotional distress of defendants when he had been unable to communicate with them the reasons for adjournments or remands in custody for lack of information.[110] Mr Atkinson gave examples of delays to a crown court trial and of a defendant with no previous convictions being remanded in custody on three consecutive occasions for lack of an interpreter then being granted unconditional bail.[111] We received evidence of many other examples of repeated adjournments.[112]

59.  We have referred above to the Ministry's efforts to prevent us receiving first hand testimony from court and tribunal staff on the standards of interpreting services. It is clear to us from the evidence we have been able to collect that the quality and effectiveness of court and tribunal interpreting services was seriously hampered by ALS' performance.


60.  The ability to understand criminal proceedings and the prosecution's case is vital to preparing a defence and receiving a fair trial. The scope for damage as a result of poor quality interpreting is very significant; at worst inaccuracies in interpreting could lead to miscarriages of justice, for example, wrongful conviction. [113] There was some disquiet amongst many witnesses, from the interpreting sector in particular, that the operational problems and reduction in quality of interpreters under the new tiering system had impacted on court proceedings to such an extent to deny defendants a fair trial.[114]

61.  We asked Mr Atkinson of the Law Society for his views on the potential for the current quality of interpreting to result in miscarriages of justice or in undermining the right to fair trial. He suggested that the extent would be difficult to ascertain. While he was confident that miscarriages of justice would occur infrequently, he nevertheless felt that it was possible. In his experience more commonly cases had been stopped and restarted. Furthermore he explained that fair trial provision within European jurisprudence looks at the whole duration of the process. He stated: "If one is looking not at the total outcome but at each of those processes, clearly it is impacting. People are being remanded in custody. Perhaps the greatest indictment of the present failures is that people are spending time in custody for no reason other than the lack of an interpreter. Although that would not come into the category of someone being denied a fair trial at the end of the day, when looking at the trial process, I would be very happy to say they had been denied a fair trial process."[115] We also sought the views of the Senior Presiding Judge, Lord Justice Goldring, on this matter, but he raised no significant concerns.[116]

62.  Collapsed cases come under two categories: 'cracked' trials, where a case is concluded without a court hearing; and 'ineffective' trials, when a hearing is cancelled on the day it was scheduled to go ahead and has to be delayed to a later date. The trend for ineffective trials as a result of non-attendance of interpreters is rising. Between 2006 and 2011 the percentages of ineffective trials that were attributed to this were below 1% in magistrates' courts and 0.5% in crown courts. In 2011, 327 trials in magistrates' courts and 17 in crown courts were deemed ineffective for this reason. In the first six months of 2012, during which time ALS was in operation for five months, there were 345 such trials in magistrate courts and 17 in crown courts, representing 2% and 0.6% of ineffective cases respectively.[117]

63.  We are seriously concerned about the increase in ineffective trials as a result of non-attendance of interpreters, particularly in magistrates courts. We will monitor the quarterly statistics on ineffective trials for the remainder of the year to see whether this is an ongoing trend.

86   Ev 30 Back

87   Ev w9 Back

88   Elsy, interpreter working for ALS, respondent on online forum, see Annex Back

89   Hirolo1926, self identified as other, respondent on online forum, see Annex Back

90   Robin123, a Defence Solicitor from the North of England, respondent on online forum, see Annex Back

91   Ev 52 Back

92   Ministry of Justice, Statistics on the use of language services in courts and tribunals, Initial bulletin, 30 January 2012 to 30 April 2012, May 2012  Back

93   Q 33 Back

94   Ev 48 Back

95   Ev 108 Back

96   Ev 109 Back

97   Q 47 Back

98   Ev w17 Back

99   Ibid. Back

100   Ev 48 Back

101   Ev 47, Ev w17 Back

102   Ev 47 Back

103   Ev 48; Apollo, respondent to online consultation, see Annex Back

104   Ev 48, Ev 47 Back

105   Ev w17 Back

106   See Ev w44, Ev w72, Ev w81, Ev w83, Ev 47 Back

107   Ev 48 Back

108   Ev w1 Back

109   Q 46 Back

110   Ev w17 Back

111   Q 46 Back

112   See Ev w13, Ev w17, Ev 109, Ev w66, Ev w72, Ev w81, Ev w119 Back

113   Ev 38 Back

114   See Ev w9, Ev w31, Ev w39, Ev w41 Back

115   Q 54 Back

116   Ev 108 Back

117   Compiled from Ministry of Justice, Court statistics (quarterly), relating to Q 1 and Q 2 in 2012 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 6 February 2013