Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Mrs Jennifer Hogg

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Select Committee’s inquiry. I wish to respond only on the rationale for changing arrangements. I offer my personal case study as a court interpreter before the upheavals of early 2012—some insights from my grass-roots experience.

1. My Qualifications

I graduated from the University of Salford in Modern Languages (French and Italian) in 1983, when public service interpreting was unheard-of. After some years abroad, then working in the UK, I became a freelance translator and interpreter. I worked hard to take the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (Law) in Italian in 2000, then French in 2001. The DPSI is a very exacting test requiring postgraduate language skills and superb English. Having successfully passed both my language DPSIs at the first attempt, I joined the National Register in 2000 and have worked regularly as an NRPSI interpreter ever since. I have Full status on the Register and over 12 years’ experience.

2. Pattern of Work

(a) Geographical spread

Based in low-crime Surrey, with two mainstream European languages, my assignments are mostly in the Home Counties, rarely in London. I have travelled as far afield as Plymouth, Bristol, Canterbury and Essex.

(b) Frequency and timing

I have averaged about one engagement per week. An average engagement is three hours. The longest engagement I ever had was a 14-week Crown Court trial. The average trial length (regarding my involvement) is one day. So the pattern is of erratic, intermittent and short “bites” of work. Police work usually requires me to drop everything and go immediately, whereas court assignments may come with advance notice.

(c) Type of Work

Initially, I was often called to police custody suites to interpret rights and entitlements, and breath tests. These are now generally handled by telephone interpreting. Eventually, gaining experience, I developed a roughly 50:50 split of police and court assignments.

(d) Subject Matter

I have interpreted in almost every legal field, from shoplifting to rape and murder. I am very familiar with custody suite procedures. Assault and domestic violence are the most common subject matters in my languages. I have assisted officers taking dozens of witness statements, including vulnerable child/adult victims of sexual assaults, where interviewing takes place on video in special witness suites. Regarding court work, I have interpreted at all levels, from civil family hearings to routine magistrates’ hearings and Crown Court trials. Last year I interpreted in the Old Bailey for defendants in a double rape case, and again for a defendant in a four-week murder trial. I would not have accepted such challenging engagements if I had not had over ten years’ experience then.

I have also been engaged by probation offices regarding offenders, and local government officers pursuing criminal cases of benefit fraud.

(e) Highs and Lows

Highs: I have an enormous sense of privilege, in sitting alongside people at an extreme point of need and acting as their only mouthpiece. It is very satisfying to know that when you have done a good job, you have given witnesses and defendants a voice—people who would be silenced and unable to put their case credibly if they had to struggle in (at best) poor English. There is also the intellectual challenge and satisfaction of “nailing” a tricky word or phrase and finding just the right equivalent. It is rewarding to be warmly thanked by a judge, barrister or police officer at the end of a case.

Lows: sitting alongside difficult or emotional people, and having to reproduce faithfully and impartially the words of people who are aggressive or unpleasant. Some cases are highly distressing, on anyone’s view. The hardest aspect is stress, often caused by poor working conditions, such as videolink technology; poor sight lines; and problems with speaker audibility when stuck at the back of the dock. There are always times when an interpreter goes home wishing they had coped better, or remembering a better phrase they could have used. Interpreting for long stretches (i.e. any more than 40 minutes without a break) is mentally exhausting. An interpreter sometimes stumbles home numb from the neck up!

(f) Financial Aspects

I have always viewed this as public sector work which brings its own reward. Private sector rates cannot be expected. Over the years, the amount of face-to-face work has reduced thanks to the use of telephone technology. Remuneration has dropped because of reductions in travel time rates. Over the last six years, my annual earnings averaged no more than £ 9,000. I am available full-time and would love to have enough engagements to work full-time.

(g) Using agencies

My local police forces now subcontract the finding of interpreters to agencies. This is disappointing, as it prevents me from having any professional relationship with my ultimate clients. There is much less flexibility in the system. I believe that detained persons are probably kept waiting longer in cells when agencies are used because of the added complication of the system. It isn’t any quicker!

I do not object in principle to the use of agencies, as some can be efficient and helpful, especially if they have professional standards using NRPSI interpreters.

3. The New Arrangements

Along with most of my profession, I was incredulous at the lack of professionalism shown by Applied Language Services. Last autumn ALS texted me instructing me to sit their assessment test at a cost of over £100 per language, before the list for court work closed on 1 December 2011. They were charging qualified, experienced people to be re-assessed to a much lower standard than that which they had already achieved! And this was in order to join an agency offering to pay a third of the rates we were receiving (taking the disappearance of travel time and expenses into account). How was that ever going to work? I could see no connection to the professional associations such as the Institute of Linguists at all, and no understanding of the nature of our profession. What would become of professional behaviour, ethics and confidentiality? Out of professional self-respect, I refused to become a casual worker in a shoddy outfit. My court work therefore disappeared overnight in February 2012.

I repeat that I have no objection in principle to working via agencies providing they are professional, using NRPSI interpreters appropriately remunerated.

4. My Current Position

Police work trickles on, as long as my local forces continue with agencies other than ALS. However this police work from March to 31 August 2012 totalled a princely 11 assignments.

I worry that I will lose my professional edge, as good interpreting is hugely a matter of practice. I am really sorry to have lost the interesting challenges of court work after so many years’ experience.

I am currently pursuing other avenues and re-training for conference interpreting work, where native English speaking interpreters are in short supply.

5. The Rationale for Change

I accept the need for government economies. However, I believe that the whole system is inherently untidy:

Despite the few foreign language speakers who ask for an interpreter even if they could manage without, most detained persons have no clue about legal English, however long they have lived or worked here. Police officers and court staff use a huge amount of in-house jargon without realising it.

Foreign language speakers pitch up in the criminal justice system randomly anywhere, and interpreters live where they live;

Interpreter time is often spent waiting. In custody suites, waiting for investigating officers to be ready to interview, or for the CPS to give police an answer on charging versus bail. In courtrooms, waiting for witnesses to attend, or for the prison van to arrive, or for the legal profession to finish their negotiations, or for the jury to return …

In busy court buildings, it is just not possible for one interpreter to cover language needs in more than one case without keeping the other courtroom waiting, at vast expense.

No amount of rationalising by consultants or clever software can wholly eradicate the element of randomness and some inefficiencies.

6. Personal Recommendations

Improvements can be made:

Separate sourcing of interpreters by prosecution and the defence should be brought under one roof, provided that the same interpreter is not engaged to interpret for opposing parties.

I have found the National Register to be strong regarding tough entry standards, but weak regarding Continuing Professional Development and personal support/accountability for registrants.

The professional interpreting associations (who have been treated with disdain by the Ministry of Justice throughout) should be taken seriously by this Inquiry, especially as regards the Cambridge model for cost reduction.

The use of new technologies can continue to be explored as long as interpreters’ views are respected.

7. Conclusion

This can be a demanding and lonely profession. An astonishingly high proportion of our public sector clients have no understanding at all of what it means to use another language, let alone the mental gymnastics going on inside an interpreter’s head.

The criminal justice system rightly expects the highest possible standard of service even if interpreters are called upon rarely. It seems to me that court life resembles politics. The words are the evidence. Ultimately, that is all there is. There is no point in having interpreters if they are not of a high standard. Getting by with cheaper people who are not capable of delivering the right words is bad practice and a waste of time. It is certainly not justice.

I thank the Committee for this opportunity, and am happy to be contacted further if required.

Prepared 5th February 2013