It has happened on this side of the Atlantic too, in Ireland. There was a serious case in Scotland as well, where it led to the collapse of a trial and stinging rebukes from the judge.
There was an article about this in the May '09 edition of the ITIA bulletin, and here is just a sample of what was said:
The selection of interpreters working for the Garda is so poor their criminal records abroad have not been checked and some do not have basic accreditation and language proficiency, it has emerged. The Garda Representative Association (GRA) has said a Chinese interpreter hired recently to help interview a suspect was himself found to be an illegal immigrant. In another case a woman interpreting over the phone between a garda and a suspect was doing so while working on a market stall. In a third case when gardaí in Kanturk station in Cork wanted to interview three foreign suspects recently they had to wait for an hour and a half before an interpreter could be located. The delay meant much of the suspects' detention time was spent before gardaí were in a position to question them. When an interpreter was found he refused to come to the station and would only interpret over the telephone.
And, perhaps more tellingly:
.... Mr O'Sullivan, who works as a garda in the Interpol office at Garda Headquarters, Phoenix Park, Dublin, said while the agencies providing the interpreters are earning considerable profits the individual interpreters are “being paid buttons”. “If money was paid directly to the interpreters it would drive their earnings up to a decent wage. There'd also be a significant saving to An Garda Síochána because you'd have the agencies out of the equation.”
Here's the damning evidence:
Garda O'Sullivan told the GRA conference that in many cases agencies had hired interpreters after a short interview over the phone and without asking for a CV
from them. Interpreters do not have to have any academic qualifications or accreditation. While those working for the Garda are vetted for a criminal record in Ireland their backgrounds in their home countries are not checked. The GRA said they have no idea if the people they are using are criminals and in many cases they have very poor English. It could not rule out the possibility that foreign gangs operating here had “planted” their own members to work as interpreters so they could intimidate people into silence if they were arrested or had agreed to be witnesses in prosecutions.
“We just want to deal with qualified professionals. In the criminal justice system if we're dealing with medical practitioners to come in and take samples for drunk driving we get a professional. The lawyers are trained and qualified; the judges are trained and qualified. The loophole in the criminal justice system at the moment is
BUT It was an Garda Síochána (the Irish police) who put the system up for tender IN THE FIRST PLACE, and must bear their share of culpability: it basically means the bigger agencies bid for the contracts and then farm out the work piecemeal to whoever applies. Since they need to guarantee an interpreter in every part of the country, inevitably those agencies are under pressure to produce lists of people who are 'interpreters'. So who was it that said bigger is better???
And here is the lead paragraph in a separate article of the same bulletin from the ITIA:
Court interpreting has been hitting the headlines in Scotland in recent years. Unqualified interpreters being supplied to the courts by agencies has led to major
breakdowns in the judicial system including one trial that collapsed due to interpreting errors. The defence lawyer for this case said, “An uncommonly large number of court interpreters come from XXXXX [agency]. They are often unqualified and incompetent.
The girl who sank [this] trial was still working for them six months later. It is not good enough for an agency to say that the interpreter is a native speaker of Polish and
that he is fluent in English. It does not make him or her a competent interpreter.”