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Criminal Proceedings & the Right to Speak in Your Native Tongue

arms_bwIt is a given that during criminal proceedings, a person will face various restrictions in regards to certain rights to which they would ordinarily have access. These restrictions are, of course, governed by a complex body of laws and vary widely according to jurisdiction.

In many jurisdictions, for example, prisoners have their phone calls monitored for security reasons. They are required to give prior notice when requesting to make a call in a foreign language so that interpretation services can be made available.

When we consider the degree to which our ability to communicate effectively is influenced by language, we realize that any restrictions to this must be reasonable and justified. How far should restrictions to speaking one’s native language go when in custody?

This issue recently came to a head when the Ministry of Justice in Wales argued that a Welsh prisoner imprisoned for vehicle theft, Martin Tate, must give 48 hours notice to speak his native Welsh language with his family. If not, English, or the lines would be cut.

The justification: to ensure that translation facilities were available to monitor the phone calls in the interest of public safety. But in the modern world, 48 hours is rather a long time.

In communications last year, Martin Tate’s mother expressed her concerns, “We haven’t done anything wrong and why do we have to talk English because he’s done wrong?” The Welsh Language Board objected to the policy, arguing that it was unacceptable. In reaction, the prison service has recently relaxed the rule for Martin Tate and other Welsh-speaking prisoners who do not pose a significant security risk.

What’s more, all of this occurred despite Welsh being recognized as an official language in Wales. These events also contradict the Welsh Language Act of 1993 which gives Welsh speakers an absolute right to speak their native language in Wales courtrooms as long as the court clerk is notified beforehand.

While this treatment of the language may seem rather outdated, the Welsh language has had a particularly tough time over the last couple of centuries. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, for instance, some Welsh schools prohibited the use of the Welsh language, imposing a punishment system called the Welsh Not. Any child overhead speaking Welsh had to wear a piece of wood around his or her neck, inscribed with the letters WN, and could only pass the “not” on to another child overheard speaking Welsh. At the end of the day, the child adorned with the Welsh Not would face physical discipline.

In recent times, the Welsh language has experienced several successes against what could be defined as language discrimination, as well as a revival in its popularity and use.

The implications of the recent Welsh case certainly make one think. For us women with the gift of the gap, it can be nearly impossible to hold our tongues, even when we set our minds to it. In the corridors of justice, how would you feel about restrictions on the right to speak your mother language? The rather bumpy ride that the Welsh language has had is a cordial reminder that some things – as imperishable as our native tongues may seem – are not to be taken for granted.

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