Belfast Telegraph

Irish speaker wins right for bilingual judge at trial

Diarmaid O Cadhla
Diarmaid O Cadhla
Olann Kelleher

By Shane Phelan

The Republic of Ireland State has a duty to make "reasonable efforts" to assign a bilingual judge to a trial where the defendant wishes to present his case in Irish, Dublin High Court has ruled.

In a significant ruling, Ms Justice Una Ni Raifeartaigh found that a decision by the District Court to refuse an application for a bilingual judge because the applicant spoke English appeared contrary to the Constitution.

The ruling relates to a case where former county councillor Diarmaid O Cadhla faces criminal damage charges for allegedly blacking out street names associated with Queen Victoria. Mr O Cadhla was raised in the Ring Gaeltacht and previously represented the Cobh area on Cork County Council.

After receiving summonses on charges of criminal damage in 2017, Mr O Cadhla wrote to the clerk of Cork District Court asking that his trial be conducted in Irish. But when the matter came before Judge Olann Kelleher in November 2017, the judge said he intended to conduct the hearing in English as he knew the applicant could speak English.

At later hearings an interpreter was provided, but Mr O Cadhla complained the interpreter could not translate both for him and the judge simultaneously.

The case was adjourned after Mr O Cadhla asked the High Court to consider the constitutionality of Judge Kelleher's decision. Mr O Cadhla claimed he would be placed at a disadvantage if his evidence was heard by a judge "through the prism of a translation" rather than in its original form.

He argued this amounted to unequal treatment and was in conflict with Article 8 of the Constitution. This article provides that Irish is the first official language and English the second.

It also says that provision may be made by law for the exclusive use of either language for official purposes.

Mr O Cadhla's action was opposed by the State, which argued that any disadvantage he alleged could be cured by the process of translation. However, the court heard from a number of solicitors that it was "usual practice" for a bilingual judge to be found where one was requested.

Ms Justice Ni Raifeartaigh said that, in a nutshell, the case concerned whether or not there was any right to be heard and understood in Irish by the district judge, as distinct from the right to speak and present one's case in Irish. She said the refusal to provide a bilingual judge appeared to her to be contrary to the spirit of Article 8 and previous jurisprudence.

The judge said she was inclined to grant a declaration that there was a duty to make reasonable efforts to assign a bilingual judge for Mr O Cadhla's forthcoming trial and that she did not believe this would cause any significant practical problems.

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