European Court breaks through language barrier

Travelling citizens of the European Union must be able to use their own language in the court of the region they are visiting if that right is also enjoyed by residents of the area, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled.

Its judges were asked to consider the cases of an Austrian lorry driver and a German tourist visiting the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy, where there is a German-speaking community that is allowed to use its own language in the courts. The Austrian was charged with drink-driving and the German with possessing a prohibited knife. But when they went to court, they were told that the court proceedings had to be carried out in Italian.

Magistrates decided that the right to have a case conducted in German was only possessed by German-speaking Italian citizens.

Both men appealed and the issue came before the European Court of Justice. It ruled that the cases should indeed have been heard in German.

The Italian position, the court's judges ruled, “runs counter to the principle of non-discrimination laid down in the [EU] treaty”.

The ECJ's ruling could also affect the Danish-speaking area of north Germany, French-speaking areas of Italy and German-speaking areas in Belgium.