Capita contract for court interpreters veers towards ‘collapse’

Courts in disarray as translators refuse to work after Capita slashes travel expenses

By Alex Varley-Winter | 14 May 2013

“There is great unhappiness at the removal of the payment of tickets for public transport”
– Geoffrey Buckingham, chairman, Association of Police and Court Interpreters

Interpreters are warning that the huge private contract to provide translation services for courts in England and Wales is on the brink of collapse.

It comes as court interpreters told Exaro that they are refusing to work after Capita, the outsourcing giant that took over the contract, slashed their travel expenses. Hearings are being held up as court officials scramble to find any interpreters prepared to step in to take up the work.

Geoffrey Buckingham, chairman of the Association of Police and Court Interpreters, told Exaro that he believes the contract faced “collapse”.

Capita was putting pressure on the Ministry of Justice to increase its payment for services, he said. “I think that could be the last-gasp action on the part of Capita on this contract.”

At Nottingham Crown Court last Friday, a judge was forced to adjourn a hearing for a case in which a Chinese businessman is accused of stabbing a family of four to death.

He said that Capita had indicated that it was not worth sending an interpreter to the hearing because it “would not make enough money” from it. The judge, Mr Justice Julian Flaux, described it as “an absolute disgrace”.

“To say that the presiding judge of the court is annoyed about this is an understatement,” he added.

A spokeswoman for Capita said that it tried to find a replacement after the original interpreter was unable to go. “Capita at no time refused to arrange an interpreter to attend Nottingham Crown Court on cost or any other grounds,” she said.

She denied that the contract was on the brink of collapse, saying: “There is no truth in that whatsoever.”

Problems surrounding the contract triggered an investigation by the House of Commons justice committee.

Exaro revealed an e-mail sent by a senior official at the Ministry of Justice that instructed employees at HM Courts & Tribunals Service not to give evidence to MPs for the inquiry.

Last November, Exaro also disclosed how the ministry was blocking magistrates from supplying crucial data to the MPs.

As a result, the committee suggested in a damning report in February that the Ministry of Justice was in “contempt” for hampering its investigation.

The latest row to hit the contract is over a clampdown on travel expenses from the beginning of this month. Interpreters say that it is not worth their while to turn up at court.

Under the new rules, they are paid 20p a mile for travelling to and from court regardless of mode of transport. This is despite the fact that they often have to travel large distances to attend hearings.

Capita pays interpreters between £16 and £22 per hour for the time they spend at court.

Madeleine Lee, a Dutch translator and a member of the campaign group, Professional Interpreters for Justice, claimed that court interpreters are, in effect, being paid less than the minimum wage because they might spend two hours travelling for 60 minutes of work.

She said that many interpreters were already refusing to work in courts for Capita, and more have joined them because of the cutting back of travel expenses.

She said: “We cannot call it a strike because we are not unionised. We are self-employed freelancers. We are boycotting.”

A ministry spokeswoman said: “The contract has made savings of £15m in the first year of operation. Whether to refund interpreters using public transport is a matter for Capita.”

Capita said in a statement: “In the past, interpreters were paid for travel time and travel expenses, which were then passed on to the [court service].”

“This is no longer the case.”

“Additional costs for travel time and travel expense are not being passed on, and will not be paid for by public authorities.”

Buckingham said: “There is great unhappiness at the removal of the payment of tickets for public transport.”

The bid for the contract to supply translation services for courts “was unfeasibly low in the first place,” he added.

The discontent is part of wider unrest over government reforms to the justice system. Lawyers are gearing up to protest about a shake-up to legal aid by staging “strikes” nationwide that threaten chaos in courts in England and Wales.

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