By Chris Summers
BBC News website
A shortage of trained interpreters in British courts and police stations poses a threat to justice, according to an industry body.
Appearing in court can be stressful, even for English speakers
Alan Wheatley, general secretary of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, said there was a need for better training and rates of pay.
Several factors, including EU enlargement, have contributed to an increased demand for interpreters.
The Police Federation said the lack of interpreters was causing real problems.
Much of the problem is due to the reluctance of trained interpreters to volunteer for work during weekends or at night, when they might be called on to interpret at a police station.
One interpreter told the BBC News website: "You can understand why some people don't want to get out of bed in the middle of the night to traipse down to a police station for work which might eventually earn £30."
Mr Wheatley, who took part in government workshops looking at the problem across the public services, said there was a serious threat to the criminal justice system, with at least one trial having been jeopardised by incorrect interpretation.
The convictions of several Chinese defendants in South Wales were quashed by the Court of Appeal earlier this year after it emerged the interpreter had been using the wrong dialect, and had therefore misquoted them.
The Courts Service has a legal obligation under the Human Rights Act to provide interpreters in the crown court.
They usually only use those who are on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, which means they have a diploma and are conversant with the way the courts work and their duty of impartiality.
Languages in demand
Polish, and other languages from the new EU countries
Chinese - due to massive growth of Chinese economy
Arabic - partly as a result of the "war on terror"
But there have been cases in recent years in which there was no-one on the register who was proficient in the particular language needed by the court.
In these cases the courts used "community interpreters", who were bilingual and were thought not to be related to the defendant.
But Mr Wheatley said some of these interpreters were blurring the rules on impartiality.
He said some had been giving defendants lifts home from court and had even been giving them advice about their cases in the dock.
The Criminal Law Solicitors' Association represents defence lawyers and its director, Rodney Warren, said there was anecdotal evidence of interpreters having private conversations with defendants and witnesses.
'Drain on legal aid'
He said sometimes more than one interpreter was needed in court - one for the defence and one for the prosecution, occasionally one for the court itself - and he said: "This is a drain on legal aid resources which needs to be recognised."
Metropolitan Police spent £7,183,000 on interpreters between April 2004 and April 2005.
In the first six months of this year (April 2005-Oct 2005) the Met has spent £4,888,000
The Courts Service's budget for interpreters rose from £2,543,502 in 2000 to £10,235,004 in 2004
So far this financial year the Courts Service has spent £7,168,631
The problem is not confined to the courts. There are also significant problems for police forces around the country when dealing with arrests and accidents involving non-English speakers.
Last year Scotland Yard spent more than £7m on interpreters and nearly £5m has been spent in the first six months of this financial year already.
Jan Berry, Chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: "In today's increasingly diverse society, there is a greater need than ever before to have a large bank of suitably qualified and vetted interpreters.
"Unfortunately, supply has not kept pace with demand and targets to reduce the time taken from arrest to sentence may be jeopardised. A lack of interpreters is causing real problems."
A spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs said: "The justice system can only be efficient and effective if access to justice is available to all.
"At least three million people living in the UK were born in countries where English is not the national language.
"Ensuring interpreters are readily available means everyone can participate in the justice process in a meaningful way. It's what the public wants and expects and if justice is seen to be done, it's more likely to inspire confidence in the way courts deliver to their customers."