Solicitors and barristers would require Irish to qualify under proposed law
Irish language ability would be required for qualification as a solicitor or barrister or appointment to the Supreme Court under legislative amendments proposed by an Oireachtas committee chairperson.
Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD has proposed amendments to the Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2021 which would reintroduce the language requirement scrapped in 2008.
Mr Ó Snodaigh chairs the Oireachtas committee on the Irish language, Gaeltacht and the Irish-speaking community, which is currently considering amendments to the government bill.
At present, roughly two per cent of barristers and an even smaller percentage of solicitors are qualified to provide legal services in the Irish language.
Speaking prior to Tuesday’s committee meeting, Mr Ó Snodaigh said: “The principle that barristers of all specialisms should serve any client without discrimination is undermined when 98 per cent can’t defend a client who chooses Irish in court.
“Most other solicitors and barristers have some Irish from school but would have to go to extra effort in an optional exam to be able to practice through Irish, for no reward. It’s a lot easier to just do the Law Society course which replaced the compulsory exam, where you learn how to say ‘Níl Gaeilge agam’ and refer a client to someone else.”
Under his amendments, the requirement for Irish would be reintroduced for solicitors and barristers qualifying after 2025 and would not apply for those coming to the State with legal qualifications from abroad.
Mr Ó Snodaigh said: “The collapse in legal service providers with Irish impacts negatively not just on Irish speakers, who are faced with yet another environment where they must switch to English to avail of basic services, but also on the overall quality of legal advice given.
“Article 25.5.4 of Bunreacht na hÉireann makes clear that the Irish text of the Constitution is the authoritative text, and in any cases where it diverges from the English translation – and there are hundreds of examples – the Irish version takes precedence.
“It is ridiculous that the overwhelming majority of legal professionals in the State are not qualified to interpret the authoritative text of the State’s founding document, from which all other laws derive legitimacy. This is especially dangerous in the case of Supreme Court judges, whose job it is to be final arbiter in the case of any disputes over the text.
“I think it a fairly basic ask that the people paid massive amounts of money to interpret one primary document should at least be able to read it.
“The High Court has ruled that lower courts, in the interests of equal treatment before the law, must be able to provide judges with Irish, and the Supreme Court should serve as an example to follow rather than an exception.”