Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Carita Thomas

This response is made in a personal capacity. I am an immigration solicitor, and represent clients whose cases have gone to appeal in the Immigration and Asylum Chamber of the First Tier and Upper Tribunal. I have not given any personal or case details in this submission but references are to real cases that have taken place since ALS began operating as the sole provider of language services for the Ministry of Justice.

The value of a good interpreter cannot be underestimated. This is particularly true when working with clients who are vulnerable, and when the outcome of their case can have serious consequences, such as returning someone to a country where they fear persecution if their appeal is dismissed, or when a family may be kept apart if an entry clearance appeal is unsuccessful. Asylum cases also hinge upon an assessment of the “credibility” of the applicant, and the way questions are understood and answered in an appeal hearing may have a major impact on the ultimate evaluation of the case by a judge.

Since ALS has taken over the contract as sole provider of language services, interpreters that have been requested in advance of hearings for my clients have not turned up, have been late, and not always been of the quality expected of interpreters before the Tribunal.

One of my clients persisted with an interpreter who was speaking a different dialect of Pashto because he did not want to be impolite, until our barrister intervened when it became apparent that the client did not fully understand the questions being put to him. The unwillingness for clients to disclose that they do not understand is not uncommon. They are often reluctant to challenge authority figures and think by challenging someone who is involved in an official procedure this may reflect negatively on their case. In a recent hearing I was only aware that the client was having difficulties with the translation of questions because the interpreter we had requested to attend to translate for conferences with the barrister sat in the back of the room while the appeal was being heard. We had asked for an interpreter who spoke Iranian Farsi, yet an Iraqi interpreter was booked. The interpreter booked also openly suggested that our interpreter should do the translation for the appeal hearing as he knew her professionally and, in his opinion, she was superior.

The solution when a problem with an interpreter arises is to adjourn the hearing until a better alternative can be found. However, this has cost implications for all parties involved in the case, including the Tribunal. In the case involving the Pashto interpreter, we had to adjourn to another date in order to obtain an interpreter with the correct dialect. Adjournments also have personal implications for the client, who may have waited a long time for a case to be determined, and on many occasions, summoned up courage to attend the Tribunal to deal with a hearing that can be stressful and highly emotional for them. Delay prolongs their anxiety. My clients have been reluctant to adjourn hearings because they want the case to be dealt with as soon as possible, and do not always appreciate the long term implications of poor interpretation.

ALS has also been unable to deal with requests for more unusual languages, so the burden has been passed back to the Tribunal service.

The experience of the interpreting services provided to several of my clients has not been positive, whether in terms of linguistic quality or standards of professionalism, such as being at a hearing on time. These problems are particularly unfortunate as they coincide with the passing of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which will exclude a huge number of people from the scope of free advice. Non-native English speakers are likely to be at a disadvantage in a process that should allow for equality of arms. The potential for injustice will increase if appellants, witnesses and sponsors are left without independent interpreters provided by representatives as a safeguard in the courtroom, and no advocate to ensure that the “highest standards of interpretation” are met.1 Judges are likely to face longer and more inquisitorial hearings when litigants in person appear before them, and dealing with interpretation problems will only add to the cost and time of the judicial process.

August 2012

1 Royal Commission on Criminal Justice,1993, which recommended only trained and qualified interpreters be used in court. Chapter 34, Best Practice Guide to Asylum and Human Rights Appeals, Mark Henderson & Alison Pickup, 31st May 2012

Prepared 5th February 2013