image of scales of justiceThe court interpreting contract with Capita has now been in place for 15 months and we have read and heard about a “significant” improvement of service over the time. If you look at it objectively, the initial reports from courts indicated that the service was so abysmally poor, it couldn’t possibly get any worse. And “improvement” is a relative notion. If the MoJ means the number of people Capita is now able to send to courts to do the job of court interpreting, then Capita is now probably able to supply more people than 15 months ago. However, where the issue of an improvement is questionable is in the lack of quality control and monitoring. The current contract allows Capita to send under-qualified people with limited experience or no experience in the legal setting.

If you look at the most recent statistics published in March, the service performance has actually dropped while the number of complaints has increased and it’s in thousands.

Moreover, the recent figures conveniently don’t include the statistics on interpreting jobs which go to interpreters direct or other agencies. 15 months on, the court service has still got a provisional emergency measure in place allowing it to use suppliers other than Capita for certain hearings. In Lincolnshire, for example, for remand and warrant hearings, the police do not go to Capita following an appalling experience they had with Capita for the first month of service. And while the Ministry of Justice refuses to publish the spending on interpreters outside of the Capita contract, the Ministers now claim they saved 15 million pounds with Capita last year. The statement is indeed very questionable as there was never an accurate figure of interpreting spending before the current contract. There is simply nothing to compare the current spending with.

Furthermore, no one seems to be taking into account all of the auxiliary costs: the cost of adjournments, unnecessary remands, solicitors’ time and court time. If it costs at least £110 a minute to run a court room with a jury, calculations are easy to make to see how much it costs the tax-payer when an interpreter is late or doesn’t show up.

Is the current deal really good for the tax-payer? Should Capita be asked to pay all of these costs? If G4S paid handsomely for the cock-ups with supplying security staff for the London Olympics last year, can Capita pick up the bill for the additional costs the court service has incurred as a result of an abysmal performance? But no, the MoJ went further and last week announced they were changing the contract terms and making the tax-payer pay more which, according to Helen Grant, is “affordable”. This website has pointed out on numerous occasions how costly the contract has proved to be for Capita plc. The company has been subsidising their linguists’ travel expenses a substantial amount of which were public transport tickets. The MoJ has now forced the tax-payer to pay linguists’ mileage rates for the whole journey, even though at a low rate of 20 p per mile, plus £7.50 per day for incidentals. This way the MoJ appears to have relieved Capita of substantial outgoings they incurred by reimbursing their linguists’ public transport tickets in the hope that linguists will continue to travel even where mileage calculations and the incidentals allowance don’t cover the total actual cost of travelling. If those linguists on the wheels may benefit from the new terms a little, others who previously had their fares fully reimbursed may feel badly let down by Capita/MoJ acting on behalf of the tax-payer.

Capita’s performance has always varied from region to region and it won’t be long until we see how the recent changes have further affected the level of service. We already have reports that some courts avoid even placing requests with Capita, going to interpreters direct straight away. Other courts have made up their own lists of interpreters who they call when Capita can’t supply. A couple of weeks ago a scam was also described on Twitter, whereby a network of Capita linguists are alleged to cancel Capita jobs at the last minute waiting for relevant courts to call them or their colleagues within the network in despair direct at the old National Agreement rates.

The question of the last 15 months has been the same: how long is the government prepared to let Capita get away with a service no commercial company would tolerate? When facts and even their own published figures speak for themselves, why is it allowed to continue? This contract should be scrapped as unsalvageable and lessons should be learnt in that outsourcing of niche services very rarely works.

Two parliamentary hearings, the Public Accounts Committee and the Justice Select Committee have revealed that the contract is fundamentally flawed: the current set up has breached various terms of the Framework Agreement it’s supposed to operate under. It is flawed to the core and it should be abandoned before a serious miscarriage of justice happens. Those who think interpreters for foreign nationals are only a burden on the public purse must remember that it’s not just defendants who require interpreters, it may be victims of crime who want justice to be done too. If anyone who undervalues the role of a professional court interpreter happened to be a key witness or a victim of a crime and the case against the criminal collapsed because of poor interpreting, what would they say?

Reposted from the Linguist Lounge blog with additional links.