Scottish Gaelic in Scottish Courts

I’m going to do that thing where I write in English about Gaelic. Three reasons might be offered for this transgression, such as it is, in no particular order.

  1. Gaelic coverage of the issue I am discussing is available elsewhere, notably on the BBC website here and here, on the radio programme Aithris na Maidne (for another 28 days), and (until 19.15 tonight!) on the BBC iPlayer for the BBC Alba programme An Là;
  2. For maximum reach, as there is no denying more people in the world understand English than Gaelic;
  3. For laziness, as my own written (and legal) English is much better than my Gaelic.

Moving to the substance of the blog post, as adverted to in the title and as those who clicked the BBC Naidheachdan link will have gleaned, this post is about usage of the Gaelic language in Scottish courts. The post follows on from a recent criminal court case (on Thursday 31 October), where someone tried to use Gaelic orally at a Justice of the Peace Court in Edinburgh and was bounced in his attempt to do so.

(For clarity, this case was not directly about Gaelic, but rather it came into play simply as a result of someone involved in the case wishing to speak in the language. As regards the case itself, I will let the person involved speak to that, by linking to his tweet.)

Scottish Gaelic and its place in the Scottish legal system is something I have blogged about before (for example, see this post from 2015). This engaged a slightly new issue though: can a Scottish court force a participant to use English rather than Gaelic?

In short: yes, it can.

For this particular case, an interpreter was, it seems, lined up at one stage but for whatever reason was not available on the day. Given there are not many Gaelic speakers in contemporary Scotland who are not also fluent in English (a demographic that is basically only pre-school age children and elderly people who have reverted to their first language), a Scottish court can normally be clear that a Gaelic speaker will understand English, and in this case the court was able to press on notwithstanding the lack of an interpreter (something that would surely have not been possible where a Polish or Lithuanian interpreter had not shown up).

This was described by Wilson MacLeod on Twitter as “Tàmailteach“, which might be translated as “a disaster”. I’ll be a bit more guarded here and note that this is all somewhat suboptimal.

Sure, we know that the person involved could have participated in English, but when language rights are involved that is at best an ancillary point. I also of course appreciate that court delays in a busy court system should be avoided wherever possible. The thing is, Gaelic is not exactly in rare health at the moment. Official opportunities to use the language should be provided. It’s all very nice to allow Gaelic to be used in sheriff court proceedings every once in a while, as happened in 2005 before Sheriff Sutherland in Stornoway, but I can’t help but feeling this episode has highlighted that language rights in Scotland are somewhat wanting when compared to somewhere else in the UK, namely Wales. It took Scotland a while to get legislation about Gaelic on the statute books (see for example this Hansard exchange about a proposed bill in the 1980s), but what we have now – the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 – does not enshrine the right to use Gaelic in legal proceedings. That can be contrasted with the right to use Welsh in legal proceedings in Wales (in terms of the Welsh Language Act 1993, and before that the Welsh Language Act 1967).

As Ruairidh Maciver (I declare an interest – he’s a first cousin) noted in his BBC Report, attempts were made to use Gaelic in court proceedings in the 1980s, in connection with the Ceartas campaign. (Anyone wishing to read up on this with access to a law library can find a discussion in this legal comment piece: A C Evans “Use of Gaelic in Court Proceedings” 1982 SLT (News) 286.) It was bounced then as well. Have we moved forward? Are we simply paying lip service to Gaelic?
It is right and proper the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service has a plan in place for British Sign Language, but should it do more in relation to Scots Gaelic? Based on this particular episode, there seems a strong argument it should.

I’ll leave it at that, but in the meantime I should say a quick “tapadh leat” to Marcas Mac an Tuairneir for bringing this to the fore. I’ll be watching carefully to see what happens next. I confess I am not getting my hopes up.

P.S. As this post “went to press”, I was tagged in a tweet which linked to the relevant Act of Sederunt on the usage of Gaelic. It seems sensible to link to this here.

P.P.S. An earlier version of this post erroneously stated this case was in Edinburgh Sheriff Court rather than a Justice of the Peace Court.

About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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7 Responses to Scottish Gaelic in Scottish Courts

  1. neilking says:

    So (as I elected not to wade my through that lengthy AS) is the upshot that the current law is that a person who can speak English would be held in contempt if s/he refused to speak it and insisted upon speaking Gaelic (or any other language)?

    Incidentally, I’m surprised to learn that there are *any* Gaelic speakers who can’t speak English nowadays. I remember being surprised at the numbers who didn’t 40 years ago but assumed they would be older people no longer with us. Are there links to any stats on this (Census?)

    • basedrones says:

      What do you mean by AS, Neil?

      In terms of the miniscule demographic that don’t speak English, I would imagine that this won’t be captured on a census. I’m more thinking of people who may have dementia or other capacity-related conditions, such that their command of English as a second language falters.

      • basedrones says:

        Sorry for the delayed reply, and cheers for the clarification re AS, that makes sense (I was obviously having a mind blank). Returning to your original point, that AS (!) I linked to is actually for the Sheriff Appeal Court so would not have been relevant here, but my understanding I suppose is that where no formal steps in advance were taken for Gaelic to be used then if someone persisted in trying to use it it does follow that there would be consequences. I imagine a sheriff would be reluctant to push this all the way though so a tactical continuation or something like that might be deployed, where possible.

  2. Hamish Lean says:

    The Scottish Land Court is required to have a Gaelic speaker as one of it’s Members.

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