The Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019
The Official Languages (Amendment) Bill 2019 ("the Bill"), which updates the Official Languages Act 2003, provides for the establishment of a statutory Irish Language Services Advisory Committee. The Bill sets out the functions of the Advisory Committee, including publication of a National Plan for the increase in the provision of public services through the medium of the Irish language. The plan will remain in effect for 6 years.
Another significant element of the Bill is the introduction of language standards for public bodies, with higher standards to be achieved by public bodies that have greater interaction with the public.
On Thursday 8 July 2021, the Government approved 32 amendments to the Bill to further strengthen the provision of public services through the Irish language. While publication of the Bill was regarded as a positive step, a number of criticisms had been aired in relation to the absence of clear target dates by which the various measures would be implemented. There had been some criticism that the Bill did not go far enough in enhancing the provision of public services via Irish. The proposed amendments to the Bill seek to rectify these issues.
The primary amendments include the following:
Designated Senior Manager to Oversee Implementation: This amendment will require the head of a public body to designate a person from amongst the senior management team to oversee the implementation of the provisions of the Official Languages Acts in that body. The amendment will also require that designated person to provide an annual written report, describing the progress that has been made.
Marketing Material in Irish: Section 9(3) of the Act currently provides that where a public body communicates in writing or by electronic mail with the general public or a class of the general public for the purpose of furnishing information to the public or the class, the body shall ensure that the communication is in the Irish language or in the English and Irish languages. This amendment will extend that obligation to where a public body is issuing marketing material to the public promoting the public body or its services.
20% of advertising in Irish: This amendment provides for the insertion of a provision to ensure that public bodies carry out 20% of their advertising in any particular year in the Irish language and each public body shall carry out 5% of its advertising in any particular year in the Irish language media.
Public Facing Services: This amendment will ensure that where a Public Body purchases a public facing service via a public procurement exercise or otherwise, that the service provider will have certain obligations regarding communications, oral announcements, signage, facilitation of use of Irish language names and addresses, official forms and logos in the Irish language, in respect only of the service the subject of the contract concerned. A definition is also provided for ‘public facing service’ as being a service provided on behalf of a public body by a third party to the general public or class thereof.
New Recruits: This amendment will set a target of 20 per cent of new recruits to public bodies being competent in the Irish language by 31 December 2030.
Following announcement of the proposed amendments, An Taoiseach commented that: "The 32 amendments will ensure that the Official Languages Act continues to act as an effective mechanism to reflect the Constitutional position of the Irish language as the first official language of the State and to ensure that public services in Irish are available to meet the needs of Irish speakers."
Implications for Public Bodies
The Bill has completed the Committee Stage in the Dáil and the 32 amendments will soon be presented at the Report Stage. The amendments provide for the placing of significant obligations on public bodies to ensure that they are adequately resourced to provide their services through Irish and in addition, that the services are provided above a prescribed standard. As noted above, these obligations apply not only to the provision of services directly to the public, but also to the provision of public-facing services via third parties on behalf of public bodies. These are far reaching obligations, which are required to be monitored by public bodies and reported upon in annual reports.
As legal advisor to a significant number of public body clients, Fieldfisher recognises the importance of having lawyers who are equipped to provide services, both advisory and contentious, through Irish. Our public and regulatory team includes a number of solicitors who are on the Law Society Register of Irish Speaking Lawyers and we have experience in managing contentious litigation before the High Court through Irish. Given the increased obligations coming down the tracks for public bodies in respect of the Irish language, provision of legal services through Irish and provision of advices on compliance with language obligations are likely to become more prominent.