Outsourced court staff play Bhutanese translation joke on harassed barrister

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By Judge John Hack on

Pay attention crime lawyers — embarrassing salutary tale highlighted on Secret Barrister Blog


The woeful state of police cell and courtroom interpreting has been the subject of much debate ever since the last coalition government hit on the wheeze of outsourcing services to an outfit Private Eye revels in describing as Crapita.

But now an anonymous barrister has come face to face with the reality of the chaotic situation, in which qualified interpreters are even more difficult to find than a validated legal aid certificate.

Writing last week on the Secret Barrister Blog, our hero in the world of crime tells the story of a Bhutanese client who spoke Tshangla, a relatively obscure Sino-Tibetan language that has no more than 170,000 native speakers.

Perhaps not surprising, then, that Applied Language Solutions — a subset of outsourcing giants Capita — was not able to pony up an interpreter on the day as apparently initially promised.

The writer behind the Secret Barrister Blog then apparently descended to the cells to inform the client — via the tried and tested method of raised voice and rudimentary sign language — that the trial was postponed for at least a day in the vague hope that an interpreter would eventually turn up.

Nothing but a blank stare resulted.

Step forward two staffers from yet another outsourced element of the justice system. Court cells are operated by security staff from the GEO Group, and these two helpful representatives offered Secret Barrister what they suggested was a handy phrase book for every language in the world.

The guards proffered a phonetically-pronounced Tshangla version of what they said amounted to the phrase, “There is no interpreter today.”

But when Secret Barrister uttered these words the client turned pale and gave every appearance of being about to pass out.

Of course the security staff — who undoubtedly have nothing but the highest respect for members of the bar — had been in jolly japester mood.

The translation guide in fact related exclusively to medical issues and the phrase they had encouraged Secret Barrister to blurt out at the poor man was:

“Tomorrow, you will have the operation.”

Life lesson for criminal barristers: treat all court staff with nothing but suspicion.