Forensics, interpretation and changes to criminal justice

By Bernadette Meaden
March 21, 2012

Britain’s criminal justice system leaves a lot to be desired, being founded on an adversarial rather than a restorative approach.

There are some areas, though, in which the system has worked well: two of these areas are forensic science, and the supply of professional interpreters for people who don’t speak English.

The coalition government, however, which seems to know the price of everything and the value of nothing, has placed even these redeeming features under threat.

It started with the Forensic Science Service. When it took office, the government appeared to misunderstand the title of this organisation, not grasping the concept of a service. They said it was losing money, costing £2 million a month. They seemed to think a service should be making money, or at least breaking even. They didn’t see that for a world-respected body which had made great leaps forward in forensic science and was a vital component of the criminal justice system, £24 million a year was probably cheap. As usual, they thought private companies could do a better job, and abolished the forensic science service, to the amazement of experts around the world.

Sir Alec Jeffreys, the inventor of DNA profiling, said the decision showed ‘an unimaginative bean-counting mentality’.

Now the government has completely disrupted the service which supplies interpreters for courts and police stations around the UK. Aiming to save £18 million per year, the Ministry of Justice scrapped the old system, where experienced professional interpreters were paid a fair rate for the job, and brought in private firm Applied Language Services (ASL).

ASL’s founder Gavin Wheeldon was on Dragon’s Den only four years ago. None of the dragons were sufficiently impressed to invest in him, but now the government has given his company the contract to supply this vital service throughout the land. His own mother has been quoted as saying, "My nickname for Gavin was our little Arthur Daley, my dad always said if he didn't end up behind bars he'd end up making a fortune!"

Since February when the change came into effect, horror stories have emerged, of incompetent interpreters appearing more bewildered in the courtroom than the accused, or no interpreter showing up, leading to a case being adjourned and leaving a potentially innocent person languishing in custody.

The anxiety, misery and injustice this must have already caused is incalculable. It is also a blatantly false economy. For the sake of paying a bit less for an interpreter, everybody involved in a case will have their time wasted. Judges, police officers, solicitors, barristers, court staff, witnesses, juries: all can turn up and without an interpreter the case may be adjourned. The financial costs of this could easily exceed what the government thought it would save.

If the interpreter does turn up but isn’t competent, there is a real risk of a miscarriage of justice, with the potential for a costly appeal in the future. That’s if the wrongly convicted person is lucky. If they’re not lucky, they won’t get an appeal and will just have to serve their sentence. The thought of an innocent person who does not speak English being abandoned in the prison system is a scenario worthy of Kafka.

A campaign has been launched to get the Ministry of Justice to bring interpreting services back in-house, but given this government’s track record with Welfare Reform and the NHS, don’t hold too much hope that they’ll listen to reason.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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