‘Sweet payouts’: Court interpreter shocked at peers’ huge pay rates

A court interpreter who covered the Christchurch mosque terrorist’s sentencing is shocked at the huge pay rates being awarded to some of her peers while she earns peanuts and struggles to survive.

Pratima Nand, 69, has worked as a court interpreter for 21 years and translated some of the most heinous criminal cases.

They include last year’s sentencing of mass killer Brenton Tarrant; Kamal Reddy who murdered his partner, Pakeeza Faizal, and her young daughter, Juwairiyah ‘Jojo” Kalim, before burying their bodies under a North Shore bridge; and Shahidan Nisha, who was jailed for nearly nine years for burning a boy with a heated poker and forcing him to eat 12 hot chilli peppers.

Nand told the Herald she usually earned $35 an hour plus mileage and parking.

She was gob-smacked to read a Herald investigation revealing some court interpreters were billing more than $1500 for a single day’s work – akin to top criminal lawyers – in what a Justice Ministry insider has described as a “gravy train”.

“It was upsetting and disappointing to a lot of interpreters because a majority of us have never and will never enjoy such sweet payouts,” Nand said.

Examples seen by the Herald and verified by the Ministry of Justice include $1700 paid to a te reo interpreter for a one-day hearing in Kaikohe; $2628 to a Māori translator at a two-day hearing in Wellington; and a $3197 bill for two sign-language interpreters for just 3.5 hours’ work in January, which included return flights.

Figures obtained under the Official Information Act show taxpayers have spent more than $13 million on court interpreters in the past five years. The single largest bill was $42,077 for four Mandarin/Cantonese interpreters at a three-week High Court criminal trial in Auckland in 2019.

Nand said she was aware of some colleagues receiving upwards of $150 an hour from the Ministry of Justice – more than four times her usual hourly rate.

There was no consistency she said, with some interpreters were making incredible money while many others were forced to work several jobs to make a living.

Nand was one of 89 court interpreters who signed a petition to the ministry last year demanding $100 an hour.

The interpreters threatened to withdraw services, hobbling up to 10,000 hearings a year, if their demands were not met.

Current regulations stipulate court interpreters should receive no more than $25 an hour or $175 a day. Though the ministry admits these rates are “well out of market expectation”, it has refused to bow to interpreters’ demands, saying pay rates are “under review”.

Nand said interpreting traumatic court cases was demanding. The job was high pressure and required unique skills.

Although she had not had a pay increase in 10 years, she was passionate about the job and felt she was part of history when covering major cases.

It was important to remain emotionally detached to perform her duties, she said.

“I keep reminding myself I am just a voice.

“If you are an emotional person and likely to break down, then this profession is not for you.”

Nand said she usually worked as an independent contractor, but occasionally got work through interpreting agencies, who charged the ministry much higher rates but took a sizeable margin for arranging the work.

“They’re the ones making large chunks of money, not us.”

She said the ministry should contract interpreters directly, instead of paying high agency costs.

Society of Translators and Interpreters president Isabelle Poff-Pencole defended the amounts charged by her members.

Interpreters were highly trained, qualified professionals and critical to the justice process.

The costs could be inflated if last-minute flights or accommodation was required.

Trial work often involved unpaid preparation work, and interpreters were mostly contractors so received no holiday or sick pay.

She said mandated pay rates were 25 years old and interpreters were entitled to receive fair remuneration for their services.

The ministry says interpreters play a vital role in ensuring defendants get fair hearings and that people can communicate effectively at court.

Officials engaged independent interpreters where possible to reduce costs. Agencies were used to cover specific or rare languages, usually at higher rates.

Work was underway to update the regulations governing interpreter fees, “to ensure interpreters are paid fairly for their services”.

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