Practice and Procedure

ALS interpreters contract facing renewed scrutiny

PUBLISHED May 16, 2012

Thursday 17 May 2012 by Catherine Baksi

The deal between the Ministry of Justice and the private company contracted to provide court interpreters is to face scrutiny from parliamentary watchdogs, as cases continue to be disrupted by poor performance and non-attendance of interpreters.

Public spending watchdog the National Audit Office told the Gazette that it has received 'a number of representations' about the Applied Language Solutions contract from parties including members of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, and said it is 'considering the matter'.

Meanwhile the Commons Justice Committee said it has received correspondence and is likely to 'pursue the matter', either as a standalone project or as part of a wider examination of the court service. In March, the committee questioned Peter Handcock, head of the court services, on the contract and what could happen if performance levels, which in its first week were quantified at just 40%, did not improve.

Committee chair Sir Alan Beith told the Gazette that it is 'subjecting to scrutiny the performance of the contract', taking up with Handcock criticisms of interpreters' attendance and quality. 'We've put questions in writing to [Handcock] to find out records of the number of adjournments etc, what feedback they have had about the contract, the qualifications required by the interpreters and the fulfilment of the contract,' said Beith.

Meanwhile, the resident judge at Snaresbrook Crown Court, David Radford, alleged that the contractual arrangements had been 'introduced without the full board approval of Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunal Service, including the judicial representatives'.

In an interview with the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association, he said the change to one contractor to provide interpreters, rather than courts individually booking interpreters from a national register, had 'badly affected' his own court. Radford said the MoJ did not 'sufficiently have in mind the whole country' when the new arrangements were rolled out nationally after a pilot on the northern circuit.

The contract, awarded to Oldham-based ALS, began on 1 February. It is intended to cut the MoJ's £60m annual spend on interpreters by £18m. Weeks after the contract was awarded, ALS was acquired by support services company Capita.

Many interpreters who had provided their services directly to the courts under the old regime have refused to work for ALS, citing concerns over fees and quality of service.