Court Interpreting: Is it worth it?

The title of this post is purposely meant to be controversial. At a time when Public Service Interpreters are meeting together to pressure the government to drop the proposed new framework agreement for interpreting in English and Welsh courts, it seems that some subjects are still to be addressed fully.

Take, for example, the whole question of economic value. While many organisations have, quite rightly pointed out that the new rates of pay are likely to be unsustainable for many interpreters, this seems to be the only argument for giving interpreters decent rates. “Pay us well or we leave the profession” is a powerful slogan but sadly, given that interpreting remains unregulated, it is hardly invincible. After all, it is possible (though not recommended) for a provider to simply hire interpreters who are less picky about rates. Sadly, for all concerned, it is likely to be several years until the damage done by this kind of thinking might be evident and by then, it will be too late.

From a political point of view, the current strategy is relatively low-risk. Sadly, practising interpreters are insignificant as a voting group, especially since they are spread relatively thinly around the country. Even if the new framework doesn’t work, it will likely hold together long enough for someone else to be in power when it all goes to pot.

So what might be the answer? Perhaps we could take the same tack as those who successfully promoted HST2, a high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham. Here, the argument was won by showing the government that they shouldn’t see the £33billion price tag as a cost but as an investment. Why worry about the costs, the reasoning goes, when it is sure to make more than that back?

The bill for court interpreting is a measly £25m per annum. Perhaps it would be possible to make an argument that this too should count as an investment. We could start by mentioning that work by AIIC to standardise conditions and qualifications for conference interpreters has made it easier for companies to find high quality professionals, facilitating international trade and boosting the conference industry. If Britain was known as a place where all interpreting was of a high standard, no matter the context, it would be likely to attract more of the highly skilled immigrants that the government seems to want. This would also mean that everyone could have equal linguistic access to our justice system and that all witnesses would be able to be heard clearly.

Better conditions for interpreters might also boost the number of students trying to enter the profession, increasing further education numbers. A related effect might also be an increased attraction of languages in general, increasing our international competitiveness.

What do you think? Is it possible to make a strong economic case for well-paid court interpreters or even Public Service Interpreters in general? Do we need interpreting to become a regulated profession? How can interpreters win the argument for good pay and conditions? Just what does it take to ensure that interpreting in courts is always of high quality?

Note: Some figures and an argument in this article have been subject to correction after welcome feedback. The author would like to apologise for any offence cause by the original draft.

7 thoughts on “Court Interpreting: Is it worth it?

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    What an interesting post and in the same week when all the courts in England and Wales have started to use a commercial agency instead of calling qualified NRPSI interpreters directly!

    Sadly, although interpreters’ organisations and interpreters themselves (including myself) have tried to explain to the Ministry of Justice the dangers of using unqualified bilingual people to do an essentially complex and technical job to the human rights of foreign defendants, witnesses and victims, the government’s current stance is that money needs to be saved and this is best done by introducing an intermediary which will source interpreters for the whole country, making it cheaper and more efficient.

    Unfortunately, as you rightly pointed out, the rights of a immigrants are not high in the government’s agency, this has clearly not been a criterion for them. Instead, they were more concerned about having interpreters available to them at the drop of a hat in even the most remote of places (like mid-Wales), without taking into account that it was more important to bring a qualified one from further away than to use someone who has not demonstrated that they have the right skills.

    The saddest thing of all is, of course, the fact that the UK was seen by other European countries (including my own, Spain) as the “gold standard”, having created the National Register of Public Service Interpreters in 1994 after a serious miscarriage of justice (the Begum case) and having agreed standard terms and conditions for interpreters in the Criminal Justice System which guaranteed their supply for relatively modest fees. Now we have gone back 20 years to a situation where the person who interprets in court may be not have any qualifications at all (only an unregulated “accreditation”), no code of practice and no vetting. And the issue of rates is important because a professional cannot do a job if they cannot make a living out of it and, as the situation stands now, interpreters cannot make a living as full-time PSI interpreters anymore, so only amateurs can afford to do it!

  2. Jonathan, I have long argued that the overall power of a regulated profession protected by statute would have nothing but a positive effect on the UK economy. Anyone from a high-quality university background (in the case of UK native language graduates) or equivalent high-quality migrants whose English is strong, perhaps in addition to their own education in their own country, would make part of their living from interpreting in the public services.

    However, a strong base of linguists would also then potentially branch out into other areas and, so to speak, keep several plates spinning at once.

    One of the aspects of language services is that practitioners based in the UK would gain some of their work directly through overseas clients or through agencies here in the UK and in other countries, which in terms of private sector work are not always the ogres they can be in the public services. The jobs that come from other economies, whether working directly with the client or indirectly through agencies here who have a client overseas, or through overseas agencies whose client may also be in another country, brings money into the UK.

    The approach of the MOJ is, in this sense, one of the most short-sighted and indeed chicken-hearted initiatives I have ever witnessed.

  3. Johnathan, I agree with your point of view and thanks for an insightful article.

    However, I believe there is certain hostility towards public service interpreters, because they interpret for one of the most despised groups in the British society: immigrants. I came to the sad conclusion today that it might have been in the MoJ’s interest to destroy the whole profession, perhaps as a deterrent for unskilled or non-English-speaking migrants?

  4. You use the term “good pay and conditions” for court interpreters. I would have used the terms “reasonable” or “satisfactory”, at present interpreters are offered ludicrously low sums, well below minimum wage, to attend courts, sometimes miles away. The government has cynically taken advantage of the freelance status of interpreters in order to ruthlessly exploit them.

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