Court interpreters have threatened to abandon their posts and bring thousands of hearings to a standstill unless the Government agrees to quadruple their mandated fees.
This is despite some interpreters already pocketing hourly rates up to five times higher than allowed under the law, and the private contractors creaming more than $13 million from taxpayers in the past five years.
A Herald investigation can reveal that some interpreters are billing more than $1500 for a single day's work - akin to top criminal lawyers - with te reo and rare languages often commanding a premium.
The situation has been described as a "gravy train" by a Ministry of Justice insider who says staff are often stunned by the huge invoices being signed off and paid by taxpayers.
"The people in my team are often aghast at the amount of money being spent on interpreter fees. For example a $3000-plus interpreting bill for a single day's work."
Examples seen by the Herald 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. The ministry said the cost included return flights.
Information obtained under the Official Information Act shows the single biggest invoice in the past five years was $42,077 for four Mandarin/Cantonese interpreters at a three-week High Court criminal trial in Auckland in 2019.
The bill included $2278 for mileage, parking and ferry expenses.
The Ministry of Justice has defended the costs, saying interpreters play a vital role in ensuring defendants get fair hearings and making sure people can be understood and communicate effectively at court and tribunal hearings.
Under the Witnesses and Interpreters Fees Regulations, interpreters are supposed to be paid no more than $25 per hour or $175 per day.
But a high-level briefing obtained by the Herald says they are now demanding $100 an hour and a minimum three-hour booking, regardless of whether a hearing goes ahead, in addition to $100 an hour compensation for travel time.
Taxpayers also pay interpreters' travel, accommodation, mileage and food expenses.
Officials concede interpreters' mandated pay rates haven't been updated in 25 years and are "well out of market expectations".
But the ministry has refused to bow to their demands, with group manager Brett Dooley warning in October that while the matter was under review, the proposed pay hike was unaffordable and would have significant knock-on effects across the ministry and other government departments.
Officials admit interpreters have received considerably more money than the regulations allow for some years in what is labelled "an accepted ministry breach".
There is little standardisation, however.
Actual hourly rates for independent interpreters average between $25 and $35.
But others employed by language service providers (LSPs) receive up to $134.50 an hour, plus expenses.
In July, a petition signed by 89 interpreters warned that if the ministry failed to make a "substantial increase" to hourly rates they would withdraw services, hobbling up to 10,000 hearings a year.
The briefing warned that such action would have a "significant impact on access to justice and the running of the courts".
While taxpayers have spent more than $13m on interpreters since 2016, one interpreting company, NZTC International, received more money than anyone else from the Ministry of Justice - $2.42m.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is working on an all-of-government contract to manage bookings and standardise interpreter fees and conditions.
But officials warn that any fee increase will cause discontent among legal aid lawyers, who receive between $88 and $159 an hour – less than some interpreters - and have not had a pay rise in 10 years.
Ministry of Justice chief operating officer Carl Crafar said interpreters provided vital services for nearly 10,000 hearings a year in more than 150 languages.
"It is critical that the ministry provides interpreters where required."
Officials engaged independent interpreters where possible to reduce costs. LSPs were used to cover specific languages, usually at higher rates.
Standard terms and conditions were updated last year to improve consistency and clarify what could be claimed for hours and expenses.
Work was under way to update the regulations governing interpreter fees, "to ensure interpreters are paid fairly for their services", which would require Cabinet approval.
Straker Translations took over NZTC International last year. Chief executive Grant Straker said the company had about 1000 freelance interpreters on its books.
They were paid between $30 and $120 an hour depending on the language and required skills.
He denied the industry was a gravy train and said the company was not making "obscene margins".
The fees charged reflected supply and demand.
"Māori is probably the most expensive because it's not as common, so finding interpreters is harder."
Last-minute jobs for rare languages would incur a premium.