Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from the International Association of Conference Interpreters


AIIC is a respected international interpreters’ association which acts as a regulatory body and negotiator in the field of conference interpreting.

Interpreting is a profession which, like any other, requires proficiency in specific skills, acquired through training. Oral or sign language interpretation should not be confused with written translation. Since the profession is not legally recognised in the way that doctors, lawyers or architects are, anyone who speaks two languages may offer their services as an “interpreter”. The difference in results according to the level of proficiency is, however, enormous.

Court and legal interpreting requires specific skills which must be assessed properly before employment on the basis of a system of accreditation approved by the profession. Adherence to a code of ethics is an absolute requirement in the sensitive area of justice where information learned in private could be used for profit by unscrupulous individuals. Membership of a professional association with stringent membership requirements is a guarantee of quality.

Only professionals can provide a service which will guarantee compliance with European Directive 2010/64 and ensure the proper administration of justice and the safeguarding of human rights. Proper working conditions and due reward according to market rates are essential to ensure professional services.

It should not be assumed that outsourcing intellectual services is conducive to making economies of scale. Tenderers will always pursue profit rather than the public good. Contracts cannot be awarded according to the criterion of “lowest bid”. The qualifications of the actual service providers (the interpreters) as well as of the tendering company must be verified. The latter should have real knowledge of the sector.

A centralised system of contracting through a single agency is not necessarily the answer to the organisational problems of ensuring that the right interpreter with the right language appears in the right place at the right time without needing to travel extensively to do so. This is essentially a localised market. The number of languages required, the uneven distribution of interpreters and their language combinations across the territory, the irregular schedules of courts and police services, last-minute contracting and irregular language needs will inevitably make it necessary to “import” interpreters from other regions or even from abroad on some occasions. Whilst an effort has to be made to better coordinate the use of available interpreters locally, and sometimes nationally, this cannot be done without the cooperation and advice of the local administrations and of the interpreters themselves.

AIIC believes that in this case, outsourcing has created a monopoly of service where quality control by the profession and the Ministry has been lost in a vital area, has created chaos in what was a relatively well-functioning system and has alienated the quality service providers. It has not solved the main logistical problem.

AIIC firmly believes that the reputation of British justice is at stake when the quality of this support service is judged in the light of EU Directive 2010/64 on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings, which must be implemented in October 2013. Moving forward in the provision of a proper interpretation system based on professional services must involve negotiation with representatives of the professional interpreters, the Ministry, the administrative bodies concerned and, if its contract is continued, with Capita as the successor to ALS.

Detailed Submission

I. Credentials of AIIC

1. The International Association of Conference Interpreters was created in 1953 to defend and promote the profession of conference interpretation. It is a not-for-profit association created under the French law of 1901. AIIC is well-respected internationally since it was and still is the first international regulatory body for the profession, with a Code of Professional Ethics, professional standards and stringent peer-review procedures regulating membership.

2. AIIC negotiates Agreements covering working conditions and rates of pay for all freelance interpreters working for major international organisations such as the UN, the EU, NATO and the Council of Europe, and international Trade Unions. It has its own Court and Legal Interpreting Committee, set up with the aim of improving the training of court and legal interpreters, especially in Europe, and is an associate member of EULITA, which has also made a submission to this committee of enquiry.

II. Interpreting: A Profession

3. Whilst AIIC particularly defends the profession of conference interpreting, it wishes to stress that interpreting in any branch is a profession which, like any other, needs: specific skills, acquired through training and consolidated through practice and continuous professional development (CPD); recognition of those skills on the basis of a system of accreditation approved by the profession; adherence to an ethical code; proper working conditions which are vital to the provision of quality performance; and due reward according to market rates.

4. Courts and police administrations need to be able to rely on professional interpreters working in a number of language pairs (in this branch, interpreters work into and from English and one other language). In countries like the UK, with a very multi-ethnic population and high visitor influx, the number of languages required is enormous, but it is vital that interpreters should be able to work competently in both languages. Their interpreting skills must be properly attested.

5. Although often confused by the public, interpreters (oral or sign language translation) need a different set of skills to translators (written translation). Interpreters work in real time and must have an immediate grasp of vocabulary, having researched their subject beforehand; they cannot hold up proceedings whilst they search for a term in a dictionary. Their clients may never have used their services before and may use slang or jargon (especially in the criminal world), which the interpreter must recognise. Members of the legal profession are also generally untrained in the use of interpreters, often speaking too quickly or without pause.

6. The terminology and concepts of the English judicial system are not always immediately understood by native English speakers, let alone non-English speakers. Interpretation may often require the transposition of terms and practices used here into a recognisable form for the speaker of a language other than English whose own country’s legal system may be quite different (e.g. the Napoleonic Code widely used on the continent of Europe, or others used in more distant lands). The interpreters must therefore possess a broad legal vocabulary which must be on the tip of their tongue in both languages, as well as familiarity with up-to-date street slang; they must be cognizant of court and police procedures as well as cultural differences between the parties for whom they work; and of course they must possess the basic skills of interpretation: the power of concentration even in stressful circumstances, very often listening and simultaneously whispering to the client—a skill which not everyone can master, and certainly not if they have never done it before and have had no practice in the art. In addition to passing Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks, they must scrupulously observe an ethical code.

7. Interpreters in this branch often work alone, are called out to work at odd hours and must often work in difficult or even distressing circumstances in courts, police stations and in prisons. Their contracts, and therefore their income, may be irregular and last-minute. They must therefore have a solid physical and mental constitution.

8. Since the profession does not enjoy a protected title, as is the case for medical doctors, lawyers or architects, anyone who speaks two languages may offer their services as an “interpreter”. The difference in results according to the level of professionalism is, however, enormous.

9. Professional interpreters will generally have gone through years of training and must continually update their knowledge in order to work. Proficiency is usually recognised through diplomas from recognised training establishments, through impartial national accreditation bodies approved by the profession or through membership of associations applying criteria of proficiency, experience and adherence to a strict code of conduct to membership.

10. Court and legal interpreting throughout Europe had often developed sui generis, without training or regulation, contrary to its sister practice of translating where many countries require certification. Very often legal translators are called upon to act as interpreters. Their “certification” as translators is often confused with recognition of their skills as interpreters, which may not, as stated above, be comparable. Although some do work in both of these professions, translators may not be good interpreters and interpreters may not prove to be good translators, especially if they have not been trained in the separate skillsets required.

11. In recent years a number of training facilities have been created in Europe for court and legal interpretation where at least the basic skills of interpretation are taught. Associations have been created to further organise the profession, providing an exchange of information, encouraging further training and an ethical approach: the UK associations are an example of this. They and the recently reformed National Register of Public Service Interpreters, with its entrance criteria including proof of experience, its code of professional conduct including the requirements of integrity, competence, confidentiality, impartiality, declaration in the case of conflict of interest etc. provide the basis of a guarantee of quality in the service provided.

12. Professional interpreters are a vital link in the chain of persons required to deliver justice and human rights, as is now recognised through European Directive 2010/64 on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings.

13. The necessary skills, described above, have a price. The use of unqualified interpreters also has a price: misinterpretation, delays, retrials and generally the kind of chaos witnessed recently costs money and has ethical repercussions on the British justice system likely to taint its reputation. Reorganisation of services cannot mean cost-cutting on the backs of skilled professionals whose fees have remained extremely modest and whose working conditions are often extremely poor.

14. The efforts of the interpreters themselves to organise their profession, to improve their skills and the service they provide should be recognised and encouraged. They could be greatly helped by a more organised approach to training through government sponsorship of specific courses in this field devised by training establishments with the help of professional associations and taught by practising interpreters. In order for HMCTS to derive the maximum advantage from foreign language and BSL interpretation, AIIC encourages the UK authorities to include a module on working with interpreters in all post-graduate legal training courses as well as in CPD courses for legal professionals.

III. The Public Procurement Procedure

15. Whilst AIIC believes that there were good intentions behind the announced desire to improve the delivery of interpretation services without loss of quality, it seems that the Ministry of Justice failed to recognise signalled pitfalls during the competitive dialogue. It sought to limit expenditure through outsourcing to a single supplier without considering any other solution or properly considering how the supplier could make savings whilst maintaining quality of service. It should not be assumed that outsourcing in the field of intellectual services is conducive to making economies of scale.

16. The use of “intermediaries” rarely reduces the cost of services but may make contracting individual suppliers easier for the end user. Intermediaries seek profit. Profit will often be made through a loss of quality.

17. The main area concerned by public tendering is the construction industry. There is less experience in tendering for intellectual services, such as interpreting. Experts agree that there is little sense in accepting the lowest bid for such services.

18. Intermediaries should have at least basic notions about the service they supply and the management should preferably come from the sector or profession concerned, which AIIC does not consider to be the case of the chosen company. It is vital to verify not only the qualifications of the tendering company itself, but also the qualifications of the actual service providers.

19. The 2000+ interpreters registered with the NRPSI had already signalled their unwillingness to work for ALS before the signing of the Framework Agreement. With the refusal of the overwhelming majority of professional interpreters to accept the terms offered, which had obviously not been previously negotiated with them, ALS had to hurriedly seek to replace them with non-professionals. The resulting drop in quality has been widely reported.

20. Discontent replaced a previously smooth employment relationship. For interpreters, who usually carry out their profession in the shadows, to feel the need to demonstrate for their rights on the streets is a sorry state of affairs, a breakdown in the relations of mutual trust between employer and employee.

21. The logistical requirements of organising a nationwide system, the main reason for tendering, were obviously underestimated. The failure of interpreters to appear at the right time, to remain in court until the end of a hearing or indeed to appear at all has also been widely reported.

22. Failure in so many critical areas points to the incompetence of the contractor and a failure in the tendering procedure. Warnings of respondents during the consultation procedure were overridden. These included fears of creating a monopoly and the likelihood of a commercial company reducing quality in the pursuit of profit. (See the letter to stakeholders signed by Martin Jones on 6 July 2011). The letter implies that the professional sector was not consulted early on for fear of its reaction. It was indeed only consulted “when it was clear what a final model might look like”. AIIC believes this was a fundamental mistake. Human resources cannot be treated in the same way as products. Their involvement in restructuring a service which they provide is vital to its successful conclusion.

23. A monopoly of supply was given to one company which AIIC believes overreached itself and lacked the competence required. The Ministry lost control of both the provision and quality of a vital service. Despite the event being deemed “unlikely” in the letter to stakeholders quoted above, AIIC submits that the contractor failed and the justice sector has been left without a proper language service.

24. It is very difficult to assess the cost of a mistake in awarding a public contract. The advertised savings have been revised downwards and many believe that no savings at all will have been made if the costs of disruption are factored into the final equation.

25. This contract was a huge prize for a single company. The company was sold on to Capita for a considerable sum of money. Perhaps a more modest reorganisation would have brought better results at a lower price.

IV. Organisation of an Interpretation Service

26. Whilst the Ministry of Justice must certainly seek to procure services as economically as possible, subject to audit requirements and within budgetary constraints, AIIC believes that it would have been possible to achieve this without totally changing the manner of operation which had been working relatively well, or losing the services of all those quality interpreters who had, over time, contributed to the professionalisation and reputation of the service and had created the first regulatory bodies: their professional associations and the NRPSI.

27. The service had been provided generally through direct contact between the interpreters and the courts and police authorities, therefore making use of local and expert knowledge. The interpreters had appeared at the requested times in court and worked very often at “unsociable” times for the police. Whilst working conditions in court and legal interpreting probably remain some of the most taxing found in any branch of the interpreting profession, rates of pay remained modest.

28. Where, therefore, did the problem lie? It is our belief that inherent problems of programming are the main reason why costs are “high”. Economies of scale are unlikely to be able to be made in these circumstances, since neither courts nor police can fundamentally change schedules to make possible the totally efficient use of available interpreters who will continue to have to wait for delayed or deferred court hearings or appear at police stations in the middle of the night. It is unreasonable to believe that an interpreter can be paid only for the amount of time they spend interpreting, at very low rates for the knowledge and skills they have, whilst they are also spending time preparing, travelling or waiting. As the courts have discovered because of the absence of interpreters, time costs money. Wasted time costs more.

29. The irregularity of the work involving frequent last-minute recruitment in what is essentially a localised market suggests that a centralised system of contracting through a single agency is not the answer to the organisational problems of ensuring that the right interpreter with the right language appears in the right place at the right time without needing to travel extensively to do so.

30. Any agency maintaining that it can always provide a “local” and therefore “cheaper” service in the interpretation sector is unlikely to know much about the sector. Given the number of languages required, the uneven distribution of interpreters and their language combinations across the territory, irregular language needs and the irregular schedules of courts and police services, it will inevitably be necessary to “import” interpreters from other regions or even from abroad on some occasions.

31. Whilst all efforts should be made to better coordinate the use of available interpreters at local and national level, this cannot be done without the cooperation and advice of the local administrations and of the interpreters themselves. It would be quite possible, for instance, for interpreters to create local administrative groups to facilitate contracting, which could be less expensive than bringing in intermediaries. A decentralised approach to organisation would in any case be better able to respond to requirements in this sector.

32. A targeted training drive together with incentives for interpreters to relocate to areas of local need could redress the present imbalances in supply over the long term.

33. In some UK regions, courts and police authorities have worked closely with their local service providers to restructure the service to the mutual satisfaction of both sides, bringing more understanding of requirements, greater efficiency and cost savings. We believe that this is the basis for a way forward.

34. It is incredible that the accumulated experience of the NRPSI and the professional associations was effectively ignored concerning an accreditation procedure, vital to quality control. Contrary to standard practice, a “new” accreditation procedure has been devised by a commercial supplier, which is also expected to carry out regulatory and disciplinary functions. This constitutes a clear conflict of interest, and it is against the public good (as predicted in responses to the consultation procedure during tendering).

35. The provision of quality interpreting services to the satisfaction of all parties concerned can only be ensured if a proper analysis of existing and future requirements and resources is carried out and if direct talks take place between those requiring the service (the Ministry of Justice, the courts, police services, and members of the legal profession) and the interpreters themselves, via their representatives. Such contacts should lay down the requirements of both sides and reach an agreement on terms and conditions of contract before any further restructuring of service provision management can be contemplated.

V. In Conclusion

36. In conclusion and in answer to four questions raised by the Select Committee which lie within its field of competence (two further questions have not been addressed), AIIC believes:

(i)That the rationale for changing arrangements for the provision of interpretation services to the courts and police was flawed in that it was not based on a careful analysis of the existing system, its weaknesses and strengths, but allowed apparent financial savings to override the quality aspect of providing a service vital to the administration of justice and human rights. The service providers themselves were not valued as stakeholders in the process;

(ii).That the procurement process was inappropriate to the delivery of a service requiring skilled providers. That insufficient regard was given to the experience of the tenderer in this field of activity and the manner in which the tenderer would be able to offer to reduce costs by offering unacceptably low terms to their contracted interpreters, thus providing unskilled labour to a sector where the outcome of their work could make a huge difference to the quality of Justice;

(iii)That for courts and prisons to receive interpretation services that meet their needs, it is above all necessary to use professional, trained and properly accredited interpreters. Interpreters’ working conditions must also satisfy a number of conditions. For instance, interpreters need to be able to hear and see all of those involved in proceedings properly, counsel should speak at a pace which can be followed by an interpreter, the interpreter should be able to take the necessary breaks in lengthy proceedings if working alone, the interpreter should be able to prepare for certain particularly complicated cases through briefings. These are only some of the aspects of interpreting requirements that are still not understood in the average courtroom; and

(iv)That the steps taken to rectify under-performance by the supplier have not, in the opinion of AIIC, been sufficient given the continuing number of cases of non-appearance of interpreters or use of unskilled interpreters widely reported in the media. Although adjusted rates have been offered to interpreters, the fact that many interpreters stand by their refusal to work under the Framework Agreement suggests that there is still disquiet about the terms and conditions on offer, whilst some courts and police administrations have preferred to revert to the previous method of direct contracting under the terms of the National Agreement in order to be able to obtain the service they require.

37. Finally, AIIC believes that a proper dialogue should be opened between representatives of the professional interpreters, the Ministry of Justice, the administrative bodies concerned and, if the current service contract continues in force, with Capita/ALS as supplier, in order to move forward. AIIC therefore fully supports the professional Associations’ request for a meeting, made in their letter to the Ministry of Justice on 12 July 2012, which deserves a reply. This was an offer to discuss a way forward, to help make savings and to improve efficiency whilst upholding high standards of Justice. These were surely questions which the Ministry should first have addressed with the professionals before embarking on this ill-starred tender procedure.

August 2012

Prepared 5th February 2013