Attorney general urged to take action against ALS, which was awarded court interpretation monopoly, after string of delays
The attorney general has been urged to bring contempt of court proceedings against the private contractor awarded a monopoly to provide interpreters to all courts in England and Wales.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, has written to her opposite number, Dominic Grieve, asking him to take action over the “failures of Applied Language Solutions (ALS) to supply well-trained interpreters in a timely fashion to our courts”.
Her letter follows a mass protest by hundreds of interpreters outside parliament and the Ministry of Justice last week as well as growing concern about delays to cases, excess costs and suspects being detained longer than intended.
The justice minister Crispin Blunt has already admitted in parliament that there have been “an unacceptable number of problems in the first two weeks of full implementation of the contract” and he is considering whether to impose contractual penalties.
Solicitors and barristers have applied for wasted costs orders against ALS after turning up at their own expense to cases that have had to be postponed because no interpreter arrived.
The contract, which started on 1 February, has been boycotted by more than a thousand qualified interpreters who refuse to work for cut-price rates and severely reduced travel expenses.
As a result some cases have been repeatedly delayed and scheduled trials put off because no one is available to interpret. In one case, a Polish suspect being remanded in custody over a video-link in one prison had to rely on a second Polish suspect in another prison to translate proceedings.
The Commons justice select committee has been told a court resorted to Google’s online computer translation because no Lithuanian interpreter could be found. Campaigners opposed to the contract warn there is a risk of miscarriages of justice.
The letter from Thornberry is a sign of growing political opposition to the privatisation scheme. “In addition to delays caused by the failure of court interpreters to appear in time for hearings, very serious criticisms have been made of the quality and appropriateness of court interpreters provided by ALS,” she wrote to the attorney general.
“It is alleged that some of the interpreters employed by ALS have not received the necessary training or legal experience to interpret in court and that they have not been properly vetted.
“I would like your urgent reassurance that the costs incurred by the Crown Prosecution Service are being monitored … Given your rigorous application of the contempt of court rules I would also ask that you consider whether the failures of ALS amounts to contempt of court.”
Sir Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the justice select committee, told the Guardian: “The courts are being put in great difficulty. It’s difficult to tell how far it’s the result of management failure by the contractor and to what extent it’s a question of many of the most skilled not being prepared to work for this company.”
The Ministry of Justice has defended the service on grounds that it will save £18m a year. It maintains the level of service is improving although it has temporarily allowed courts to find interpreters from other sources at short notice if ALS cannot meet its commitments.
In the Commons, Labour’s justice spokesman, Andy Slaughter, suggested that the loss of public money already “dwarfs the alleged savings” and called for the contract to be suspended.
Blunt hit back with accusations that interpreters had previously “been grossly overpaid” and had taken advantage of the system under the last Labour government. Interpreters dispute his figures.
ALS, based in Oldham, was acquired by the public services provider Capita shortly before Christmas. A Capita spokeswoman said: “The MoJ awarded the contract to fundamentally address the weaknesses, lack of transparency and disproportionate costs of the previous service.
“Inevitably there will be a period of transition as embedded but inefficient working practices are changed with the aim of achieving higher quality and more cost effective services.
“The contract began just six weeks ago, we already have 2,000 experienced and qualified linguists actively working within the system and more are signing up daily.
“Assigning qualified and experienced linguists to assignments and insisting on continuous professional development, while reducing operational inefficiencies, remains our focus.
“We are determined to get the service running at a level that meets the MoJ’s requirements, provides transparency of opportunity for linguists and fully supports the police and court service.”
The company claims that its translators are qualified to at least the minimum standards required by the criminal justice system. Others, it says, are qualified to postgraduate levels. Capita alleges that cases were also delayed in the past because of a lack of available interpreters.