Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Yvonna Swanson

I am a Polish legal translator and interpreter with 25 years’ professional experience. Ten years ago I decided that my translating and interpreting skills were good enough to move into the field of legal interpreting and I gained my Diploma of Public Service Interpreting in Law. I also became a full member of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, specialising in Law. I have been a court, tribunal, police and UKBA interpreter ever since. I also work as an examiner for the Institute of Translation and Interpreting and as a Tutor on DPSI courses, the Law option.

In order to highlight the important role of a court interpreter, consider a crown court trial with a defendant who is not an English speaker. The trial involves a judge, a court clerk, two ushers, prosecutor, barrister, security guards and twelve jurors, not to mention all the administrative back and front office court staff. During such trials the role of the interpreter is crucial to the delivery of justice. A qualified and experienced interpreter works fast, helps to avoid confusion and ensures fast and effective communication between all the parties involved. That interpreter understands linguistic nuances in both languages and slight cultural differences. Such interpreters save a lot of court time, which apart from human cost can only mean huge savings in monetary terms. The interpreter’s job is central to such trials and ensures delivery of justice. Hence such work is very responsible. Under the old regime such an interpreter would earn not more than £200 for a full day’s work in court. On average, that interpreter could expect to work only two full days a week. All those interpreters were freelancers, so when they were on holidays or ill, they had no income.

In my opinion, the new FWA agreement cannot work and deliver as promised, because:

It treats highly qualified and experienced professional legal interpreters on the same level as unqualified and inexperienced “linguists” (the term newly introduced to this specialised area of interpreting by ALS).

It has resulted in miscarriages of justice, re-trials and some appeals, with significant cost implications, all brought by the use of unqualified, unverified and inexperienced interpreters, most of them without even the basic CRB check.

Under the previous system of payments, a fully qualified and full-time interpreter who was prepared to travel long distances to work would earn up to £25,000pa on average. Under the current system, the same interpreter would earn £10,000 on average. Such rates of pay can be attractive only to unqualified, inexperienced “linguists” or old interpreters of post-retirement age.

The system is too centralised and local knowledge gained over the years by the local listing officers and court administrative staff is ignored and totally wasted (ie most of the courts had their own lists of local reliable interpreters, and over the years listing officers had developed their own lists of professional and reliable local interpreters; these lists are no longer used).

Professionals whose rates had not risen since 2003 saw their rates slashed further to the level of cleaners’ wages. But, unlike cleaners, legal interpreters have no guarantee of work most days of the week. An interpreter was required to book the whole day for a court job, although he or she may have been released after half an hour. It was because of this, and that consequently it was not possible to book more than one job per day, that the minimum payment of three hours was established under the old system. This has now been abolished; the minimum payment is now £20, and nothing at all, not even travel re-imbursements, if the job is cancelled at short notice. One needs to bear in mind here the fact that on average a court interpreter works two days a week.

It is increasingly the case that ALS interpreters simply do not turn up at court. They book themselves on multiple assignments—ALS allows this—and then go to the one likely to give them the best pay.

In this profession there is a need for continuous professional development (eg to keep on top of ever-changing legislation and developing terminology in both languages). It is obviously time-consuming and costly, but people on very low rates of pay cannot afford to do this. Neither is there any incentive for them to do so.

At the moment there are still some highly qualified and experienced interpreters working in this field but there is evidence that new people are not joining the profession, as the remuneration is so low. This year there has been a dramatic fall in the numbers of new students joining DPSI courses. The implication is that the profession is dying, and the quality of the service being provided is going down, while the costs to the courts and the tax payer will rise because of delays and re-trials.

I believe the new system is causing damage to the profession and to the justice system, and that far from saving costs it will increase them, while cases of miscarriage of justice will become more frequent as non-English speakers are given inadequate representation in courts, tribunals and when interviewed by the police.

September 2012

Prepared 5th February 2013