The court interpreting fiasco – the facts and the friction

The contract to supply court interpreters to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is facing its toughest test yet today, as hundreds take to the streets of London to protest. Meanwhile, the story has finally received the attention of the national press, and discussions in parliament are underway to address the issues.
Members of the Professional Interpreters Alliance (PIA) and many others are angry that the MoJ chose to outsource all interpreting assignments to one firm, the Manchester based translation agency Applied Language Solutions (ALS). They believe that ALS is mismanaging the contract, cutting interpreter pay and hiring unqualified staff. But is this true? And if so, is the outsourcing model inherently flawed? Let’s look at the facts.

ALS problems

Last year, the MoJ agreed a deal with ALS to provide all court interpreters through one firm. The contract was thought to be worth around £300m, but the MoJ claimed that savings were estimated to be up to £18m a year. As part of the contract, all interpreters were forced to sign up with a new national database on a website called Linguist Lounge, scrapping the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI). The new system was initially trialled in Manchester, and despite significant problems resulting in Greater Manchester Police ripping up the contract, the system remained on course to be rolled out nationwide.
Before the five year contract had even officially begun on 1 February, thousands of professional interpreters had decided that they would not work for ALS under the current conditions. This is because the new pay model stipulates that the highest fee an interpreter can earn is £22 per hour, with some being paid as little as £16 per hour. In addition, travel expenses would no longer be covered. When compared with previous earnings, a flat rate fee of £85 plus a quarterly rate after three hours with expenses included, it resulted in a 60-80 per cent pay cut for nearly all qualified interpreters.
Around 60% of the 2,300 people on the NRPSI boycotted the contract, and two weeks in, ALS admitted that it was struggling to meet requirements. They confessed that, in some cases, tribunal hearings had to be cancelled or postponed because they were unable to find interpreters. On rare occasions, foreign suspects had to be released without questioning as interpreters were not available. A spokesperson for ALS said: “Unfortunately that has been true in some cases which is something that we are working extremely hard to resolve.”
Mirela Watson, an interpreter with 15 years experience, witnessed this with her own eyes. She told The Guardian: “ALS is supplying a lot of unqualified, unvetted interpreters – myself and my colleagues have been visiting the courts randomly to monitor ALS’s work and the standard is absolutely unacceptable, it could lead to a serious miscarriage of justice.” Many others observed that ALS were hiring unqualified interpreters, and the process by which interpreters are vetted was shown to be fundamentally flawed after an interpreter registered her pet rabbit on the Linguist Lounge website.

MoJ reaction

At this point, the private contract was put on hiatus, and as a temporary measure, the MoJ instructed all courts and tribunals to find interpreters from other sources in “urgent” cases. An internal email seen by The Guardian said: “We have decided that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service

[HMCTS] must take urgent action to mitigate the number of hearings that are failing as a result of the contractor’s difficulties with sourcing interpreters at short notice.
“With immediate effect HMCTS will revert to the previous arrangements for all bookings due within 24 hours at the magistrates’ courts … we will revert to previous arrangements for urgent bookings required for bail applications, deports and fast track applications in the first tier tribunal immigration and asylum and urgent bookings in the asylum support tribunal.”
The email went on to say: “We understand that some staff and judiciary have sympathy with existing interpreters. We must however do all we can to encourage sign-up to the new arrangements – the new contract has the potential to bring significant benefits to both interpreters and the justice system as a whole.”

MPs concern

A number of MPs began to express their concerns with the contract. Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, reiterated initial worries about the consequences of hiring all court interpreters through one firm when he wrote to the justice minister Kenneth Clarke in February. He said: “Ensuring value for money in delivery of translation and interpretation services is clearly important,” he said, “but this must not be to the detriment of the quality of the service in such a critical area of justice.”
Labour’s justice spokesman Andy Slaughter agreed, and slammed the MoJ for awarding the contract “in the face of clear warnings and opposition from the interpreter community” and that “hard-pressed taxpayers will have to foot the bill not only of delayed and abandoned court hearings, but of unnecessary remands into custody, appeals and judicial reviews”.
He added: “There is a genuine risk of miscarriages of justice because of inadequate or unsuitable interpreting and translation services, and breaches of the right to a fair hearing under the Human Rights Act.”
In the past week, problems have worsened for ALS after they were landed with several wasted costs orders from Sharma Law Solicitors in London, who have experienced a number of instances where hearings have been repeatedly adjourned due to absent interpreters. One order has already been granted by the Magistrates Courts, and another is currently pending approval. Each adjourned hearing costs around £300, and solicitors like Sharma do not receive any payment or compensation.

Finding solutions

When confronted about the issues, the MoJ would only acknowledge that they were working with ALS to resolve the problems: “The Ministry of Justice is working with Applied Language Solutions to closely monitor the operation of the new contract.
“The government is determined to ensure that taxpayers get value for money across the whole of the justice system. This new contract will save at least £18m a year on the cost of interpretation and translation, a reduction of almost a third, but will ensure that high quality interpreters and translators are still available to those in need.”
Recently, ALS has sought to rectify some of the problems by offering a cash incentive to interpreters who recommend a friend, and CEO Gavin Wheeldon came out to declare that interpreters would be paid for court waiting time and that the allowance for mileage had been doubled, from 20p per mile to 40p for any travel over 10 miles each way. He also confirmed that ALS does offer interpreters £10 an hour for commuting after the first hour of travel each way. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Justice minister Crispin Blunt agreed that the contract had suffered problems, but accused the old system as “so inefficient and so decrepit” that the MoJ was forced to find a better solution. He reaffirmed his faith in ALS and holding company Capita, and expressed his belief that they were “rapidly improving the delivery of the new arrangements”.


As a language services provider, Transcription Global understands the benefits and the challenges of the outsourcing model. We work with plenty of large clients that outsource interpreting or translation services to us on a regular basis, and although it’s a difficult balancing act, it is possible to reduce costs and improve service provision. But ALS has not gone about things in the right way. They made their first mistake when they failed to maintain communication with the NRPSI, and even after things had started to go downhill, they should have come out and addressed the PIA’s issues sooner. Rule number one: always value your staff. We have spoken to many interpreters throughout this whole fiasco, and by listening to them, we have managed to gather a more objective view of the situation. ALS should have done the same.
Outsourcing offers most businesses greater flexibility and control, and in the private sector, this allows them to increase profit margins. In the public sector, and on such a large scale, we would never advise the government to outsource all work to one company, as regardless of the company’s size or success, they would never possess the capacity to manage such a large contract. Although the MoJ’s cost-cutting motivations were sincere, it just wasn’t possible to save £18m a year without impacting on quality. Trying to convert a system that allowed courts to hire their own interpreters, working on a freelance basis for a rate that is justified and reflective of their profession, into a system that forces all courts to wait for interpreters to be allocated, unqualified interpreters being paid the same as highly qualified interpreters suffering a 60-80 per cent pay cut, was just never going to work.
Ryan Owen Gibson is the Online Marketing Manager for Transcription Global, who are a leading transcription and translation services provider based in the UK.

By |2016-10-18T15:48:39+00:00March 15th, 2012|Interpreting|11 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Carolyn Y. March 15, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    It’s great to have more of a back-story on this situation. From all the news I’ve read, it’s pretty obvious that this “was just never going to work.” Nice to have more details, though. I only have one major question left: What was so flawed in the old system?

  2. céline March 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Thanks Carolyn. Ryan did a brilliant job at giving an overview of the whole situation, didn’t he. From what I understand, the old system worked perfectly well. This was just a cost-cutting exercise that was very badly executed.

  3. Katarzyna March 15, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    The whole concept of the privatisation of court interpreting services is not based on facts. The major problem – and the one highlighted many times by interpreters – was that nobody knew how much exactly was being spent on interpreting. The info was not collated centrally, one had to inquire with individual police forces and courts. The figure of £60m is an estimated figure based on some similations and projections on the basis of sample data. The real figure – based on hard facts – is £25m – this is how much was spent on interpreting in courts (ca. £4m in crown courts and £11m in magistrate courts) – the rest was spent by the police. The projected savings will only be realised if ALL CJS agencies, including all police forces sign up with ALS. Is it likely to happen, though?
    A much more reasonable way to approach the problem would have been first to establish a proper audit trail (e.g. to establish if in some languages and in some locations it might be cost effective to actually employ interpreters rather than hire freelancers). Once you know how the system works and your knowledge is based on facts and not on anecdotal evidence, then you can start thinking how to improve it and remove inefficiencies. And interpreters and their representative bodies should be involved throughout.

  4. Michael Robinson March 16, 2012 at 11:39 pm

    I believe an interpreter was arrested in Newcastle and another on Teesside. Not as qualified as said they were.
    Who checks how ALS do their job?
    Who enforces quality standards?
    Who checks ALS are doing what they are required to do?

  5. hellen mason-spyry March 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    In answer to what was “wrong” – from a government administration point of view it would most probably boil down to interpreters being paid travel time and costs say to amounting to a total of 200 pounds for a mornings work, if travelling to an area where no-one else was available in their language. Given that one earns that in a day working on legal documents at home or in half a day at normal interpreting assignments, the change just did not take into account the way professionals have to juggle their time to provide their valuable service. H

  6. Steve Vitek March 20, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    I loved the story about the pet rabbit.
    It reminded me of a test that I took as a Czech to English court Interpreter at the famous Berlitz School of Languages in San Francisco in 1987.
    Because Berlitz School of Languages uses only “certified” interpreters, I had to pass a strict test in their offices before they could certify me.
    Somebody gave me two lines in English, something about immigration proceedings, and told me to say the same thing in Czech.
    So I said two sentences in in Czech while the dude was taping me. Needless to say, I had no idea what the correct legal terminology would be in Czech.
    And that was how I became certified by Berlitz as a qualified court interpreter. I doubt very much that anybody ever heard that tape.
    I only did one interpreting job for them anyway because the pay was so low.

  7. céline March 20, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    I think the vetting of interpreters is the biggest issue and concern here. Can an unaccountable private company really be trusted to forget about its bottom line and pick the best interpreters, rather than the cheapest?

  8. Steve Vitek March 21, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    The question answers itself.

  9. Judy Jenner March 22, 2012 at 6:29 am

    Fascinating stuff. I’ve been following this story with great interest. Thanks for the great summary. We are facing a similar situation here in Nevada, but the only problem here is that there’s no unity among court interpreters. Most court interpreters have already signed the new contract, which reduces the rate by 30%. Ouch. I did not sign the contract and would love to see a reaction similar to the one in the UK. Unfortunately, looks like that’s not going to happen. All quiet on Nevada streets, media, etc.

  10. EP March 25, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    This is where this cost cutting madness always leads to in the end. It’s kind of like lemmings going over a cliff.

  11. jim May 15, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    I’m glad to have finally stumbled on an article covering ALS that isn’t littered with misguided, xenophobic attitudes. Celine puts a very good point forward related to centralising the court-wide service; it isn’t possible to manage costs when you don’t know what is being spent and where it is being spent.
    In the meantime, I think we need to ditch ALS and open up competition for other companies. Defendants would have the opportunity of looking around for good interpreting services , which would be more likely to provide quality interpreting due to the increased competition. Any state-backed service for those unable to pay the interpreting fees would then benefit from a reduced workload.

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