The Official Languages Act 2003 seeks to formalise the position of the Irish language within the State. It seeks to promote the use of Irish for official purposes, to set out duties of governmental bodies in relation to the official languages. It establishes a Language Commissioner. The Act was to be commenced within three years of enactment.
The Minister is to make an annual report to the Houses of the Oireachtas in relation to the operation of the Act.
The Act declares the rights of members of either House of the Oireachtas to use either English or Irish in the House and in Joint Committees. A person appearing before the Committee of the Oireachtas has the right to use either language.
Every official report and the debates or proceedings of the Houses are to be published in both languages. Contributions in either language by persons may be published solely in the language of the contribution.
Acts are to be published simultaneously and immediately in each language. A person may use either official language in any court pleading. A court has a duty to ensure that persons appearing before it, giving evidence, may be heard in a language of their choice and shall not be disadvantaged by not being heard in the other official language. In order to ensure no person is disadvantaged, the court may cause provision for simultaneous or consecutive interpretation from one language to another.
Where a state or public body is a part of the civil proceedings before a court, the state or public body is to use the official language chosen by the other party. If two or more persons other than the State are party and they fail to choose or agree the official language, the state or public body shall use in the proceedings such official language as appears to be reasonable in the circumstances.
Persons may not be compelled to give evidence in any particular official language. In choosing to use a particular official language in proceedings before a court, a person must not be put by the court or public body to any inconvenience and expense over and above that which he would have incurred if he had chosen to use the other official language.
The Minister may make regulations providing that oral announcements by a public body, headings of stationery and layout signage, and advertisements placed by it shall, to the extent specified, be in the Irish language or in the English and Irish languages.
Certain documents made by or under the authority of a public body other than one prescribed pursuant to regulations are to be published in each language simultaneously. This includes documents setting out public policy proposals, annual reports, audited accounts, financial statements, statutory statements under the Public Service Act or prescribed classes of documents.
For the purpose of promoting the use of Irish for official purposes, the Minister may give notice in writing to a public body requiring it to prepare and present to him for confirmation schemes specifying service with which the body will provide exclusively through Irish, exclusively through English and through the medium of both. The measures the body proposes to adopt to ensure services that are not provided through the medium of Irish will be so provided.
Directions may cover means of communication either generally, of groups or individual members of the public. The Minister may direct a public body to draw up a plan for the delivery of the services of the public body or certain of the services in Irish, requiring it to estimate a timeframe in which it will implement the plan. The Minister may publish guidelines in relation to the preparation of schemes by public bodies for the above purpose.
There are procedures in relation to the preparation of the scheme. Notice of the intention to prepare a scheme and representations are to be sought from interested parties. The body is to have regard to the guidelines published by the Minister for representation.
The body must ensure that there is an adequate number of staff competent in the Irish language to provide the service in Irish and English. It must ensure that Irish language requirements associated with the provision of services in Gaeltacht areas are met. He must ensure that the Irish language becomes the working language in its offices of the Gaeltacht by the date specified by the Minister.
The schemes are to be presented to the Minister for confirmation. It may be confirmed with or without amendment. Scheme remains in force 3 years or until a new scheme is prepared, whichever is the later.
The Minister may, but no later than 6 months before the expiration of the scheme, give notice to the heads of public bodies requiring the scheme to be reviewed. The public body is to conduct a review of the scheme and present a new draft scheme for confirmation by the Minister.
Where the Minister is of the view that due to any change in the functions of the body and the circumstances in which they are performed, it is appropriate to amend a scheme, he may initiate or, at the request of the body concerned, give notice of proposed amendments of the scheme. If the body fails to prepare a scheme, the Minister is to report the failure to the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Once a scheme is confirmed by the Minister, the public body is obliged to carry it into effect. The scheme is not to limit the ability of the public body to undertake further measures to promote the Irish language. A body may not impose or charge on any person due to the requirements imposed under the legislation.
The legislation establishes the office of the Language Commissioner. The office is independent of government. The appointment is made by the President on the advice of a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
The function of the Commissioner is to monitor compliance by public bodies with the Act. He may take measures within his authority to ensure compliance. He may investigate at his own initiative or on request of the Minister, failures by public bodies to comply with the legislation.
The Commissioner may provide advice and assistance to the public and to public bodies regarding their respective rights and obligations. The Commissioner may require the production of documents and records and may require persons to attend before him. He may require disclosure of information in the same manner as from a witness before a court. Failure to comply with the requirement made by the Commissioner, hindering or obstruction, etc. is an offence.
The Commissioner undertakes investigations other than in public. Legislation provides procedures to regulate investigations. The Commissioner may refuse to investigate a complaint if
- the complaint is trivial or vexatious,
- the person hasn’t taken reasonable steps to seek redress or if he has been refused redress,
- the complaint relates to matters within the power of the Ombudsman
- he matter does not involve the contravention of the legislation.
The Commissioner is not to investigate a complaint if civil proceedings have been initiated and they are ongoing concerning the same subject matter unless there are special circumstances so to do.
The Commissioner is to give a person who has made a complaint a copy of his reasons for not investigating. Where an investigation is undertaken, he is to provide a report in writing to the public body, the Minister and the complainant regarding his findings.
A party to an investigation or other person affected by the findings and recommendations of the Commissioner may appeal to the High Court on a point of law.
The Commissioner is to request the public body to submit to him comments regarding his findings and recommendations under the report. If recommendations submitted to a public body have not been implemented within a reasonable time, the Commissioner may make a report to the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The Minister may make schemes of compensation providing for payments by public bodies to persons in respect of failures of compliance with the Act by the public body.
The Commissioner may provide practical commentaries on the practical application and operation of the legislation. This must be based on experience under the legislation.
The Commissioner is to present an annual report in each official language and furnish it to the Minister. The Commissioner may if he considers it appropriate and in the public interest, prepare and publish a report in each of the official languages in relation to any investigations carried out.
The Minister, having received advice from the Commission, may make a place names order. This declares the Irish language version of a place name specified. It may change the existing placename
Words declared in the placename order to be the Irish version of a placename ought to be construed in legal documents as referring to the same place and having the same force and effect as the English language version of the place name unless the contrary appears.
Where the Minister makes a declaration of a placename in a Gaeltacht area, the English language version is no longer to have any force and effect in legal documents. There are certain savers for pre-existing documentation and references.