The Scotsman can reveal that court interpreting and translation services have, for the first time, been put out to tender to “improve quality” and value for money. The winner of the £6million contract will provide interpreting services for the growing number of non-English-speaking accused and witnesses in court cases.
The three-year contract will cover not only the Scottish Court Service but also the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the Scottish Legal Aid Board, and the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration.
Currently, interpreters are hired on an ad hoc basis through a handful of agencies.
Most courts seek interpreters who have a diploma in public service interpreting (DPSI) that covers Scots Law. But a shortage of qualified interpreters in many languages means courts often have to make do with language teachers with little or no experience of court procedure.
In one high-profile case, an assault trial collapsed because of mistakes made by a Polish interpreter. Experts say the lack of qualified interpreters is posing a growing threat to justice as the number of eastern European and other non-UK nationals appearing in court grows.
Last month, Slovakian Marek Harcar, 33, was convicted of the rape and murder of a Glasgow businesswoman Moira Jones.
And in March, two Lithuanians – Vitas Plytnykas, 41, and 20-year-old Aleksandras Skirda – were convicted of murdering Jolanta Bledaite and disposing her body in the sea at Arbroath.
There are around 300 foreign nationals in prison, while the amount spent on court interpreters shot up from £167,000 in 2003-4 to £653,000 in 2006-7.
John Scott, an Edinburgh-based solicitor advocate and an expert on human rights, said the current patchy interpretation service was threatening the right to a fair trial.
“This move is a belated acknowledgement of the continuing problems. Article six of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to a fair trial, includes the right to understand the case against you. That has not been happening as well as it should.
“There is an argument that the courts and the Crown Office have been in breach of their duty. This move represents a waking-up to these problems.”
The contract is advertised as being designed to “improve quality and coverage of service delivery”. This will be measured for the first time against performance indicators to ensure justice is being served.
Interpreters can earn about £11 an hour for court work, but the lack of guaranteed work and the £500 cost of obtaining the DPSI means some fear the shortage of suitably qualified translators will remain.
Julita Young, who runs her own translation company specialising in Polish and Czech, said: “It is well known that some interpreters working in courts don’t actually have the right qualification. I have seen this myself when I’m in court and hear other interpreters from other agencies.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Court Service said it faced “increasing demand for interpretation and translation services in courts throughout Scotland”. The new approach will co-ordinate services and ensure value for money, it said.
A Crown Office spokeswoman said: “The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service welcomes this positive step towards further ensuring diversity principles are put into practice. Not only will the new contract improve the quality and coverage of service delivery, it will also encourage the sharing of knowledge and improve efficiency.”
LOST IN TRANSLATION
A JURY trial of a Polish migrant accused of attacking another man in Aberdeen collapsed last year after the interpreter admitted her inexperience in open court.
This was despite reassurances from the interpreting firm that she was suitably qualified.
Two years earlier, an assault case in Wick collapsed because an inexperienced Polish interpreter made too many mistakes.
And last month a High Court hearing suffered a hitch when it was discovered an interpreter spoke the wrong dialect.
A High Court trial collapsed in 2007 because three Vietnamese men accused of operating a cannabis factory did not understand the evidence against them.
And unqualified interpreters have been heard advising accused of the sentence they can expect to receive if they continue to plead not guilty.