“I consider it pocket money. You can’t live on it.”
Bob Gould is one of thousands of professional court interpreters who were effectively thrown out of a job in early 2012 when the entire court interpreting service for England and Wales was privatised and handed to “outsourcing solutions” experts, Capita. Rates for interpreters were slashed to barely subsistence levels overnight, leading to the vast majority of interpreters choosing to boycott the new contract rather than accept Capita’s pitiful pay and conditions. As the privatisation of Royal Mail rolls on and other essential services such as probation and legal aid work look set to fall under the auctioneer’s hammer, the story of Bob and the thousands of other interpreters affected is an acrid foretaste of what the government’s privatisation agenda means for workers and public service users around Britain.
To the court interpreters, the government’s frequently iterated claims to be “making work pay” are nothing less than risible. “Before, if you were a capable interpreter and prepared to work no matter what plans you had for the evening or what time of night it was, you could earn a good living,” Bob told me. “That dramatically changed in February 2012, because suddenly there was no court work for interpreters unless they were prepared to work for this cowboy outfit at grossly underpaid rates and with no compensation for travel time and fares. Over 2,000 nationally registered, recognised and experienced interpreters have been thrown on the scrapheap by the stroke of a pen.” Many interpreters also accepted night-time and weekend work for the police in addition to their court work, however a combination of police cuts and the proliferation of interpreters desperate for work meant that this has dried to a trickle.
Prior to February 2012 interpreters would be paid a flat rate of £85 for a court hearing, plus £15 an hour for travel time and reimbursement of the travel fare. When Capita took over they slashed the rates to £16-22 an hour with no payment for travelling or waiting time. Bob described what this means in practice for interpreters. “For example, they might phone up and say, ‘We have a job for an Italian interpreter in central London. There will be about three hours work there.’ There might be, or there might not be, but it will take you an hour to get there from the suburbs, it will cost you £6 to get there and back, and when you get there you might only have an hour’s work.”
In this case, the interpreter could take home just £10 for three hours of their working day after travel expenses are deducted. Bob estimates that interpreters now earn between 25 and 40 percent of their previous rate for a court hearing. “If you’re only there for one hour, less your fare, less your national insurance, less your tax – forget it; it’s a waste of time.” In one particularly extreme example, a Vietnamese interpreter traveled from Newcastle to Sussex – a 560 mile round trip – only for the hearing to be adjourned after eight minutes.
The impact that these changes have had on court proceedings is also concerning. “Normally you would get there early because you need to be available for a conference before the hearing starts – a discussion in private with the lawyer and the client. Now you won’t be paid for that, so what happens is people turn up at 10am when the court starts, not at 9.30am when the conference starts. The lawyer will say to the court, ‘I haven’t had a chance to discuss things with my client because the interpreter wasn’t there,’ and the judge will say ‘All right, we’ll adjourn it for now and you can go down and talk to your client.’”
That’s if the interpreter shows up at court at all. In the first year of the contract over 600 trials were abandoned due to Capita failing to provide an adequate interpreter, and Capita also received 6,417 complaints about the standard of the service they were providing – over 25 per working day! Bob describes their approach to interpreting as “like selling cabbages: pile ‘em high, sell ’em cheap, and you make more money. But interpreters are not cabbages. You need to be able to stand up to questioning in court. You need to be able to instantly interpret accurately for a long period of time. You need to understand the subtleties and the cultural and linguistic differences between the foreign language and the English language.”
The changes in pay and conditions have led to an exodus of experienced and qualified interpreters from the courts. Bob told me that many of his former colleagues have returned to their country of origin, no longer able to afford life in Britain, while others have turned to walking dogs, babysitting and cleaning in order to pay the bills. Others have found part-time teaching or written translation work, but at a fraction of their former salary.
As a result of this refusal to accept their terms, Capita have been forced to employ people with no experience of interpreting, let alone of working in a high-pressured court environment. A survey of Capita interpreters conducted by Involvis found that 44.5% had not been asked to undergo any kind of assessment of their interpreting skills before being offered jobs by Capita. In one of the more farcical episodes of this mostly tragic saga one interpreter managed to register her pet rabbit as an interpreter with Applied Language Solutions (the company that was granted the initial contract before being taken over by Capita).
This use of inexperienced interpreters with little experience of working in a legal environment means that the most basic errors can cause severe disruption to the proceedings. Bob described how unqualified French interpreters can very easily translate the word ‘caution’ as une caution, meaning a deposit or security payment, when in fact the correct equivalent is une mise en garde. “How can the important message in this caution have been communicated when the question put to them is, ‘Have you understood the deposit?’ This is an important procedure. It’s your right not to say anything so it’s important to impart that to the person.” There have also been cases of defendants being told by their interpreters that they will have to pay a fee, when in fact they are being told that they face charges. If picked up on, these kinds of mistakes can lead to re-trials with the attendant psychological and financial consequences for all involved. If not picked up on, they can lead to miscarriages of justice. “I hear it already. I hear of mistakes being made. There will be a gross miscarriage of justice on the basis of very poor interpreting,”
To get a sense of the scale of the turmoil Capita has caused in the courts it is only necessary to visit the Linguist Lounge website, which collates the hundreds of Twitter reports from lawyers and court staff of Capita interpreters failing to show up or providing an inadequate service. A series of tweets from Mary Prior, a barrister at 36 Bedford Row chambers, gives a snapshot of how the justice system is being affected by the changes. On 30th July 2013 she tweeted, “No Hungarian interpreter. Waiting to start a trial. Can’t start until co-defendant has their interpreter.” Over three hours later she then tweeted, “Hungarian interpreter has now arrived. As a result trial will go well into next week and jurors may not be available to sit,” and then, “The difference in quality between a proper interpreter and these new court ones is staggering. Please make it stop.” This is just one case among hundreds, each of which is costing the Ministry of Justice many thousands of pounds in additional court administration costs.
Although the privatisation of court interpreting is a particularly egregious example, Bob was clear about the parallels with other public services facing or already undergoing privatisation. “It’s a familiar pattern of big firms that have no expertise in that particular area taking huge responsibilities on at a huge multi-million pound price and making massive profits by dropping the services and giving their employees poor pay and conditions. That’s the way it’s going and it’s going that way more and more.”
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