Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Jennifer Smith

I am writing in response to the call for evidence regarding interpreting and translation since Applied Language Solutions (ALS) become the sole contractor under the National Framework agreement.

I am a NRCPD registered Sign Language Interpreter and up until the contract started I worked in courts for a year either as an interpreter for the solicitor or the courts and in some cases, which were shorter in length with no conflict of interest, for both. I worked for a company, Sign Solutions which were considered to be the expert company for sign language interpreting in the legal domain and I worked in courts daily.

The National Agreement that was in force was adequate in stating the standards necessary in courts. This was put into the contract though I am aware of one occasion where ALS could not fulfil a booking and this was passed to another agency who provided a signer who had no experience of court work and had not passed the National Occupational Standards in Interpreting. The danger with this contract is there is no monitoring of standards of either the main contractor or its suppliers. The additional problem is that the pay an actual interpreter receives when sub-contractors are used is less and this attracts those that are less experienced, some with no knowledge or training in interpreting in legal settings. ALS has had no previous experience in provision of Sign Language Interpreters and this is a niche area that should be left to those who are experienced.

On several occasions in February and March when I was booked as a solicitor’s interpreter there was no court interpreter provided. On one occasion a Crown Court had asked the defence Barrister to book an interpreter as they could not access any interpreters via the contractor. I was thanked specifically in court for stepping in and covering the booking.

The sign language interpreting agency that ALS has used as a preferred supplier had no experience of legal interpreting and were using interpreters who were NRCPD registered interpreters but with no court experience.

There seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding by the contractor between a language user, the term being used is a “linguist” and an interpreter, who has skills and training in interpreting between two languages. The two should not be confused especially when the contract concerned is for courts and tribunals.

The lack of cancellation fees in the contract is a grave error meaning that it is difficult for interpreters to accept bookings unless they are at the last minute which also makes it difficult to source the same interpreters for trials lasting longer than a few days. In order to win this contract ALS clearly put in certain promises such as fees and terms and conditions offered to personnel that has resulted in not being able to fulfil the contract with experienced staff.

Many bookings I am aware of have had to be cancelled and the number of adjournments due to a lack of interpreter will inevitably negate the proposed cost savings as these are being passed on to courts themselves and Deaf people are not getting the appropriate access to justice that should.

I am concerned that the statistics released by the Ministry of Justice were collated by ALS. The contract was awarded based on estimates and all of the monitoring done since has been by the contractor so that there is no effective monitoring taking place.

Both the NRPSI and NRCPD have lists of interpreters with vetting and insurance. These lists should be used by court staff with a specific remit for booking interpreters using the rationale of the National Agreement to ensure standards are maintained and people have access to justice by skilled personnel. There are other ways of saving money on interpreting costs and having a national contract does not work when there are not enough government personnel to ensure the contractor is fulfilling the contract appropriately. The tendering process was not appropriate and has ended in a dangerous situation that is costing tax payers money for a sub-standard service.

Speakers of other languages using interpreting services such as Deaf people can not access the complaints process and can be the most vulnerable in society. Legal personnel often do not have the knowledge they need to ensure interpreters are effective and skilled. By using registers that are already in place and proven to work, interpreters of the appropriate standard are guaranteed and an accessible complaints process is in place for Deaf people.

I have not worked in courts since this contract (unless booked by a solicitor separately) and will not do so under this contract. Many interpreters I know are also boycotting the contract. What Deaf people, some of the most vulnerable in society, now have is access to the least experienced interpreters, and worse, in some situations, not even a appropriately qualified and registered interpreter.

August 2012

Prepared 5th February 2013