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Selling off Britain: Lost in translation?

Privatisation of language services within the UK justice system has led to fears of miscarriages of justice.
Last modified: 10 Oct 2012 12:30

OK, here's a question for you. Imagine you're on holiday in a country whose language you don't speak.

You're walking through a market and someone commits a crime - steals a handbag, say - near where you are standing.

The police turn up and arrest you by mistake. Then they take you to the police station, and talk loudly at you in their language which you don't understand. And then they lock you up.

Sound a bit Kafka? A bit post-Soviet? Well, it's exactly what interpreters and legal campaigners say has been happening throughout this year in Britain.

Why? Because at the end of last year the government here decided to privatise – outsource – the courts' interpretation service.

The rationale is straightforward enough: the old system was a bit clunky, bureaucratic, they said.

Courts were hiring interpreters themselves, there was no centralised billing system, it was expensive.

Cheaper, leaner system

A privatised system would be cheaper, leaner, easier to account for.

That's fair enough, maybe. But what happened was that the company that won the contract - Applied Language Solutions (ALS) - failed to provide an interpreter to a third of all the court hearings it was supposed to in the first month of its contract.

Since then, courts all over the country have been reporting that trials have had to be suspended, at great cost, because translators simply haven't turned up.

It has also been claimed repeatedly that, in any number of cases, the translators that ALS did provide were utterly clueless, couldn't speak the correct language, and failed to translate to the defendant, who was left not understanding what was happening to them.

It's not difficult to imagine if it was you – stuck in a court in another country being talked about in a language you don't know – just how frightening that might be. And just how great is the potential for a miscarriage of justice.

ALS accepts that it has made mistakes but says it has got a good bit better since being taken over by a much larger company.

Unsalvageable system

The interpreting community, which has been active and vocal in saying it wants to destroy the current system in favour of something more professional, says the existing situation is unsalvageable, beyond redemption.

It's also under review on a number of fronts. Two government committees are looking at what's happened this year and are constantly monitoring the service.

Some on the government committees have said openly that they fear "a comprehensive failure of the justice system".

They're not the only ones. As of right now, solicitors who specialise in representing foreigners say they're trying to organise judicial reviews of dozens and dozens of cases, of people who were routinely refused a translator in breach of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

There's an organisation named Fair Trials Abroad, which specialises in helping out Brits who have been arrested or locked up in dubious circumstances in other countries.

Perhaps now is the time for a similar body to represent foreigners in Britain who, it appears, may have been systematically denied their legal rights.

Watch out for the rest of Laurence Lee's mini-series, "Selling off Britain", coming up this week on Al Jazeera, and follow him on Twitter: @gregorsamsa1967