A court in Belfast today rejected a legal bid to overturn a 270-year-old ban on the use of Irish language in Northern Ireland court proceedings.
The Court of Appeal dismissed claims that the law was discriminatory and breached the European Convention on Human Rights.
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Catháin had appealed the dismissal of a legal case he took after being informed his application in Irish for an occasional drinks licence could not be considered.
Court staff said the reason was that under the Administration of Justice (Language) Act of 1737 all proceedings in Northern Ireland courts must be in English.
The licence sought by Mr Catháin, a member of the Shaws Road Gaeltacht, was in connection with a musical concert at the Culturlann arts centre in Belfast.
Last summer the High Court rejected his contention that the 1737 Act was incompatible with the European Charter for Regional and Minorities Language and that it contravened his human rights. His lawyers then went before a three-judge appeal panel to argue that the legislation has been repealed in Scotland and Wales.
But Lord Justice Girvan, sitting with Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan and Lord Justice Coghlin, said the act had not been shown to be incompatible with any of Mr Catháin’s Convention rights.
Although he acknowledged the requirements did treat English speakers differently from non-English speakers, the judge held this was “manifestly necessary and proportionate in a democratic society”.
He said: “In a jurisdiction where English is the language of the overwhelming majority of the population the requirement that court documents initiating proceedings be in English as the working language of the court is a practical necessity in the interests of fairness.”
Lord Justice Girvan stressed that non-English speaking witnesses in proceedings must be entitled to give evidence in their own language through a translator - otherwise their right to access to the courts would be “illusory”.
However, he emphasised the present position that English is the working language of not just the courts but nearly the entire population.
“Even if Article 6 and 14 (of the European Convention on Human Rights) were engaged in this case no breach of the appellant’s Convention rights has in fact occurred,” he said.
“The appellant has not demonstrated any Convention incompatibility in the 1737 Act.”
Lord Justice Girvan added: “At common law English is the working language of the court and this will remain so unless and until the matter is changed by statute. Any change in law would itself have to be compatible with the Convention rights of litigants.”
Outside the court, Pobal, an umbrella group for Irish speakers, expressed disappointment with the ruling and called for the urgent introduction of an Irish Language Act.
Chief executive Janet Muller said Pobal has been in contact with new Justice Minister David Ford.
“Clearly there is a major issue with a 273-year-old law that bans the use of the indigenous language of Ireland in the courts in part of Ireland,” she said. “It’s very difficult to defend the rights of Irish speakers at the minute because there is no specific domestic legislation for the Irish language.”