Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from the Magistrates’ Association


Early in the summer, after implementation of the new service the Courts and Courts Practice Committee of the Magistrates’ Association requested and received feedback from our members on their experiences of how the new service was working in practice within the magistrates’ court system. Areas which responded represented a wide geographical spread across England and Wales and between rural areas and cities. If required full details of the comments received can be supplied to the Committee.

Our summary of the comments can be seen below and are therefore addressing point 3 in the terms of reference of the Select Committee:

“the experience of courts and prisons in receiving interpretation services that meet their needs.”

In general, most areas reported a variety of problems with the service particularly at the commencement of the contract. Two main difficulties were experienced: firstly mistakes in the organising or booking of interpreters ie, an interpreter of a language different to that booked arrived at court or the interpreter had to leave earlier than required. And secondly the location of interpreters, including problems with finding interpreters with experience of less common languages.

The other area of comment centred around the quality of the interpreter’s actual performance on the day. Comments were also made about issues raised in dealing with the service provider.

There was however a small minority of respondents who thought the service had improved with the new arrangements but this represented only about 10% of all comments received: although as some two thirds of all areas did not respond this satisfaction level may be much higher.

Since these early days it has become apparent that considerable efforts and resources have been applied to remedy the many problems described below. The level of comments has diminished although complaints are still received by the Association especially about the standards of interpreters. It would appear therefore that the level of service is slowly returning to that experienced before the new contract commenced.

1. Organising/Booking of Interpreters

This was probably the most common subject of complaints from our members. Specific issues were:

(i)interpreters being booked for inadequate timeframes ie, an interpreter arrived at court but could not stay for the whole duration of the case(s) for which (s)he is needed;

(ii)interpreters arrived late or failed to arrive at all;

(iii)interpreters with the wrong language or dialect to that which had been booked;

(iv)multiple interpreters having been booked for the same language/dialect;

(v)interpreters having been sent to the wrong court house; and

(vi)that the system for confirming the booking request is inadequate.

2. Location of Interpreters

There were several problems experienced on the day which meant that new interpreters had to be sent from another area, including:

(i)delays, cancellations and court time wasted whilst waiting for a interpreter to be sent from another area;

(ii)the expense involved—particularly when interpreters were sent long distances eg London to Somerset; and

(iii)there was frustration that it was not now possible to use local and able and known interpreters, especially when the new interpreter’s work was seen as inadequate.

3. Performance of Interpreters

There were many problems reported about performance, including the quality of the interpreter’s language skills, organisational abilities, and knowledge of the legal process. Specifically, problems reported were:

(i)interpreters were late, “disorganised” ie, failing to inform the court of expected lateness;

(ii)the level of language skills or interpretation skills were inadequate, either in the required language or knowledge of English. “It was a domestic violence case. The interpreter’s own English was almost incomprehensible. After several attempts... to actually interpret the questions...(the witness seemed to have difficulty in understanding the interpreter speaking in her own language anyway) I decided that the matter couldn’t go ahead.”

One respondent commented that the interpreters “don’t seem to know what’s required ie if client speaks a little English [they] just sit and listen rather than interpreting’ and an experience was reported that: “it became apparent that the interpreter was answering the questions before having translated them for the witness.”

Some interpreters offer several languages and this may suggest the interpreter was not as skilled in interpreting nuance in each language.

The issue was also raised of how carefully the quality of the interpreters is checked; and

(iii)knowledge of the court process or etiquette was inadequate. “We had an interpreter who did not understand the demeanour and tone of the courtroom and started by cracking jokes and grinning at the bench.”

4. Issues in dealing with service provider

There were a number of problems experienced initially with the service provider, namely:

(i)inadequate central point of contact or guidance on reporting problems;

(ii)no apparent standard reporting mechanism; and

(iii)a lack of detailed confirmation of bookings received.

5. Other Issues

Various other comments of interest were received:

(i)there were several comments that it should be clarified that the need for the interpreter was real—particularly in cases where the client had been resident in the UK for many years;

(ii)magistrates were not given sufficient advice and guidance on the changes regarding the new system;

(ii)there does not seem to be adequate data on the use of interpreters;

(iii)an impact assessment should be carried out in courts on the changes;

(iv)the advice on payment of fines is not always in the appropriate language; and

(v)the remote interpretation service used in Westminster was seen to work well.

August 2012

Prepared 4th February 2013