Ensuring Language Rights Across EU Courts

EU citizens speak dozens of languages, while migrants add many more into the mix – so what happens when a minority-language speaker enters the courtroom? Generally speaking, if an individual doesn’t speak the same language used to conduct court exercises, then judges, lawyers, police, and other personnel must assess the person’s needs and provide access to appropriate translation and interpretation services. The problem is that this doesn’t always happen, meaning some individuals are deprived of their linguistic rights.

UK Service Failures

It’s difficult to say just how often people are deprived of their linguistic rights in the courtroom, in part because many receive informal assistance from relatives, are offered ineffective or improper assistance, or do not know how to report issues with their experience. In 2016, however, the UK revealed a flaw in their service plan, reporting that they had been forced to adjourn over 2,600 court cases since 2011, due to translation failures.

During the time period in question, the UK Ministry of Justice had outsourced its translation services to the firm Capita, but in 2016 the company declined the chance to bid for a renewal of their interpretation contract. Instead, the company only bid on written translation and transcription processes, leaving the UK struggling to fill translation needs. Furthermore, Capita had faced serious criticism in the past regarding its live interpretation services.

Solutions And Support

In order to improve the enforcement of linguistic rights, EU courts need new tools and better training, among other supports, and in that vein, some courts are considering the use of courtroom recordings. Such recordings, particularly when combined with tagging software, would allow the courts to record proceedings, annotate them, and add metadata to evaluate whether proper services were supplied. This could be valuable on appeal and in training court officials on interpretation protocols.

Another issue facing linguistic minorities in the EU is that most countries have insufficient legal aid provisions. This can be a problem for all those appearing before the criminal courts, but for both ethnic and linguistic minorities, there is a greater risk of discriminatory action, with circumstances perhaps worst of all for non-citizen minorities who have few protections.

Ongoing Exclusions

Finally, the EU needs to be aware that certain procedural norms may make it more likely that minorities will have their linguistic rights violated, as highlighted by a recent audit of the EU’s top courts. At present, the European Court of Justice and EU General Court hears cases in any of 24 official languages, but only deliberates in French. This means that who can participate in the official life of the court is limited by linguistic access. Auditors have recommended increasing the number of languages for deliberations to include English and German, or other EU languages; though still limited, since many EU citizens are at least bilingual, this would open official court operations to a larger audience.

Protecting linguistic rights in the EU will not be an easy venture, particularly as several member countries experience growing nationalist behaviors, which is why the courts need clear regulations and reliable services. This is all part of embracing the EU’s natural linguistic complexity.

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