A controversial contract to supply court interpreters to the Ministry of Justice has been all but abandoned.

Two weeks into their contract to supply court interpreters to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), supplier Applied Language Solutions (ALS) has admitted that it is struggling to meet requirements.

ALS has admitted that in some cases, hearings had to be cancelled because they were unable to find interpreters. A spokesperson said: “Unfortunately that has been true in some cases which is something that we are working extremely hard to resolve.”

MoJ instructions

The private contract, thought to be worth around £300m, has been put on hiatus as tribunal hearings were being forced to postpone when court interpreters provided by ALS failed to attend. As a result, the MoJ has instructed all courts and tribunals to find interpreters themselves 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.”

It goes 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 have already expressed 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 this week. 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 translating service, and breaches of the right to a fair hearing under the Human Rights Act.”

Finding solutions

The struggle to supply court interpreters has arisen because the majority of interpreters have refused to work with ALS due to disputes over pay and the standard of qualifications required. Speaking to Law Gazette this week, the Professional Interpreters’ Alliance (PIA) – which represents public service interpreters – revealed that 60% of the 2,300 interpreters on the national register have refused to work for ALS because of these reasons.

When confronted about the issue, 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.”

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