Five weeks for demanding a form in Welsh

Nigel Stapley says events this week demonstrate that the language still occupies a position of legal and constitutional inferiority

On the same day as ClickonWales published an upbeat account of this year’s National Eisteddfod earlier this week, we had a strong reminder of the continued inferiority of the language in terms of its legal and administrative status vis-à-vis non-devolved state bodies.

In March 2011, there was a brief occupation of the offices of a Tory MP in Cardiff in protest against a decision of the London government to hand control of the Welsh-language television channel S4C to the BBC. During the occupation, a political slogan was spray-painted on a wall.

In August of that same year, the painter of the slogan – 36-year-old school teacher Jamie Bevan of Merthyr Tudful – was convicted and handed a seven-day prison sentence along with a costs order of just over £1,000.

Despite asking several times for the costs order to be sent to him in Welsh, the Courts Service failed to do so. Mr Bevan received a number of apologies over this, but still the Courts Service failed to meet what was at least an ethical obligation upon it, if not strictly a legal one. Various officials of the Courts Service and associated bodies displayed attitudes and conduct which varied between the patronising and the confrontational throughout.

On a point of principle, Mr Bevan said that he would not meet the costs order unless his request was complied with. So, on 13 August – as I say, the very same day that Clickonwales celebrated the resurgence of Welshness at the Eisteddfod – Mr Bevan appeared before Merthyr Tudful Magistrates Court to explain why he hadn’t paid.

To add an extra flavour of condign insult, Mr Bevan had to have use of an interpreter, as that very same Courts Service had insisted on the hearing being held in English – despite, again, Mr Bevan asking for a hearing in Welsh. As with the documentation, it seems that there is no actual legal right for Welsh-speakers to have a hearing in our own language.

Instead of pointing out to the Courts Service that – whatever the letter of the law may say – it might be politic (or even simply a display of good manners) for them to provide the costs order and court hearing in Welsh, and adjourning the case until that was done, the magistrate instead sent Mr Bevan to prison for five weeks. By all accounts this has made him the first member of Cymdeithas Yr Iaith to be imprisoned for his actions for about thirty years. I don’t know which body employs him as a teacher, but past experience would imply that his employer may now try to dismiss him.

My point is this: there are far too many people – even those who are or who have been involved in campaigning on its behalf – who believe that all the key battles surrounding the legal status of the language and those who speak it were won long ago. They have not been, especially in relation to non-devolved state bodies and large private corporations.

When you maintain a language in a position of legal or constitutional inferiority, you maintain those who speak it in an inferior position as well. No amount of successful Eisteddfodau (and I speak as one who went to the Wrexham one last year – the first time it had come here since I became fluent – and had a very enjoyable time) will change that.

Nigel Stapley blogs here

16 thoughts on “Five weeks for demanding a form in Welsh

  1. Fully agree Nigel. If Wales is a bilingual country, as various academics, commentators, officials, etc, keep telling us, then any refusal by a legal or political body to deal in one of those two languages has to be a breach of human rights. I mentioned this point to a prominent Labour politician a short while back and the response I got was “we shouldn’t take the (Welsh) language too seriously. After all we all speak English”. With this level of ingrained British nationalism filtering through our Assembly and Cardiff Bay, it is no surprise that anti-Welsh language attitudes disseminate throughout our land.

  2. Excellent article but incorrect in one respect; Jamie’s court hearing (for which I was present) WAS conducted in Welsh. The judge and all other court officials were all speaking Welsh throughout the proceedings. There WAS a translator present but only for the benefit of the only person in the room who didn’t understand Welsh; the woman taking the minutes!

    It is painfully ironic that the legal system was finally able to sentence him in Welsh for failing to comply with their repeatedly English demands.
    Jamie addressed the bench to explain his refusal to pay the fine and highlighted also the disadvantages that Welsh speakers face in court. I saw, in the corridor outside the courtroom, posters produced by the judicial service displaying the Welsh dragon and boasting that we are allowed to give evidence in Welsh. The reality, as Jamie Bevan reminded us before being led away, was that those who dare to ask are actually advised against requesting a hearing in Welsh as it will disadvantage their chances of a fair hearing.

    It all begs the question; IS Welsh legal in Wales?

  3. Can I just clarify a matter here.

    Jamie Bevan got a 7 day prison sentence for an act of criminal damage – whether you agree with his reasons or not, this is an open and shut, definite offence, for which punishments are prescribed in law.

    Then, for not accepting paperwork in a foreign language, he received a sentence of 35 days.

    By my maths, that makes speaking Welsh 5 times as serious as criminal damage.

    As another point, I wonder what the cost of one-off translation would be versus the cost of keeping Jamie in prison for 35 days (no doubt speaking Welsh is also not “good behaviour” so there’ll be no shortening of his sentence…)

  4. I get the bit about not having a cost order in Welsh. That should have been supplied after he requested it. Further than that though, I don’t quite understand what you are asking for?

    If he indeed did have difficulties understanding English, then this issue was addressed by the supplying of an interpreter. How is that an ‘insult’? What is the realistic alternative?! Sack the monoglot court service employees who have likely lived and worked their entire lives in Merthyr, but through no fault of their own don’t speak Welsh… and why? Because somebody probably not from Merthyr who works in the local Welsh medium school broke the law? Can’t you see for one second just how absurd and unfair that would be?

  5. I am embarrassed for the Court Service and if reports from Cardiff prision are correct incompetence and the toleration of neanderthal attitudes among staff are – surprise, surprise – to be found in the prisons as well. Here is another strong argument for devolution of criminal justice to Wales and the creation of a separate Welsh jurisidiction.

  6. I thought that we ‘are all in this together’ according to the line purveyed from Downing Street.

    The status of the Welsh language underlines the status of Wales, as little more than a colony which England has only partially succeeded in assimilating.

    It’s our language, it belongs to all the inhabitants of Wales, not just to those who speak it. The English legal and judicial system was foisted on our country. The time has come for Walees to have its own legal jurisdiction and for policing and criminal justice to be devolved. It’s an affront to human dignity that a person cannot be tried in his own language in his own country. The issue of ‘cost’ has been used as an excuse to batter the language for generations. Imagine the outrage if an English person, say living in Bristol or Birmingham, couldn’t have a hearing in court in English.

  7. “By all accounts this has made him the first member of Cymdeithas Yr Iaith to be imprisoned for his actions for about thirty years.”

    There have been many imprisonments of Cymdeithas yr Iaith members over the last thirty years. Before Jamie Bevan the most recent instances were Ffred Ffransis and Osian Jones, both in 2009.

  8. For the benefit of “comeoffit”, who clearly feels the need to hide behind a pseudonym, let me clarify a few points.

    Jamie Bevan has no difficulty understanding English. That’s not the point. The point is that, as a Welsh speaker, he has a moral (and in most cases, a legal) right to services in his own language in his own country. He was, and still is, making a stand to highlight the denial of that basic right. He is doing so not only on his own behalf, but also on behalf of all the other Welsh speakers who are frequently denied even basic services in their own language.

    Secondly, Jamie is from Merthyr, not an incomer. Around 11% of the population of Merthyr speak Welsh. So painting this as a face-off between local people and Welsh-speaking incomers won’t work. Jamie is a native of Merthyr Tudful, and speaks Welsh. If you want to talk about fairness, how about being fair to a local man whose only condition is that he be dealt with in his native language in his own town?

    Also, Jamie is not a school teacher, contrary to what the article says. He teaches Welsh as a second language to adults, but that is not his main job.

  9. What rights have Welsh-speaking criminals? They are being punished twice – once by being imprisoned, and a second time by being forced to serve their term in an environment where they have no lingusitic rights whatever. At least Jamie will spend his days in a jail in Wales – some other members of Cymdeithas yr iaith Gymraeg have had to do their time in English prisons.

    Welsh-speakers are non-citizens. An aunt of mine in Caernarfonshire was obliged to spend her last days in a home where most of the staff and a considerable proprotion of the inmates couldn’t speak Welsh at all. Very many fluent and literate Welsh-speakers never use their mother-tongue for official purposes for fear of being discriminated against (e.g. applying for planning permission). My own registration of my wife’s death in Welsh in Powys was a demeaning experience.

  10. The people who should be in jail are the executives of the dull and stupid public service who failed to provide the documents in Welsh. If not jailed they should be sacked. The U.K. State has no defence for this outrage, Mr Bevan is an outstanding Welshman.

  11. To cut through the histrionics; the judge would have applied a “reasonableness” judgement to the man’s non-conformance with a Court Order. This would be “Did he UNDERSTAND what was expected of him?”. Since Jamie Bevan could not claim to be unable to access the information in an English Language version of a Court Order (he could read English) then the Judge reasonably punishes him for non-compliance.

    All those posters above take the view that the Court’s failure to supply a Welsh Language version of a form is sufficient to exonerate Mr Bevan from compliance. The Court, however, is itself allowed to use reasonableness as a defence for not suplying an Order in Welsh (all public services are). In this case they could say:- “The demand for a Welsh Language form is virtually non-existent and all people in Wales can access an Order in a language that they can understand. Mr Bevan has other legal means at his disposal (The Welsh Language Commissioner) to persue any grievance.”

    Just to make you all happy, If the court had supplied the Order in Welsh only to a non Welsh speaker then that person would have a good case to claim that he was unable to comply and that the court was being unreasonable (only 12% of the population of Wales are fluent in Welsh and there is no Language Commisioner for the English Language in Wales.) I’m confident however that if the non-Welsh speaker in this case couldn’t show that he had actually asked the Court officers for a translation or explanation of the document… he would still be going to jail!

  12. I’m grateful to Phyl, Carl and Barry for their corrections; it’s what happens when you rely on secondary sources in a hurry, especially when most of those sources are state/corporate media.

    Iestyn: the average cost of keeping an adult in prison in England and Wales is said to be at least £40,000 per year. By my calculation, if Jamie Bevan serves the standard fifty percent before release, it would cost the hard-working, decent, law-abiding, cliché-ridden British taxpayer close on £2000 – which is probably far less than it would have cost the Courts Service to meet its ethical obligations to him in the first place. Like the cases of Liam Stacey and the ‘Facebook Two’, another triumph for British justice!

    I’m not a constitutional expert, so I don’t know to what degree non-devolved statutory bodies such as the Courts Service are obliged to deliver bilingual services, but perhaps someone from ‘our’ government could have a quiet word with Kenneth Clarke as the minister responsible and point out that some of his predecessors came to regret similar cloddish behaviour in the past? Annoeth cicio nyth cacwn.

    I was heartened to see my own MP Susan Elan Jones joining forces with Plaid’s Jill Evans in issuing a statement condemning the magistrate’s actions, although as Don illustrates there are still plenty of the old ‘Home & Colonial’ wing of the Labour Party in Wales about.

    And finally (for now), Hwnt is right in suggesting that Welsh-speakers – especially but by no means exclusively in those areas where they aren’t in either a majority of a very substantial minority – are still reluctant to insist on service in their own language. This may be down to a continued, if somewhat more covert and attenuated, inferiority complex; or it may be due to a suspicion that – like Hwnt – they will be met with what at best is regretful incomprehension, at worst outright hostility. If the reports are correct, the Courts Service apologised to Jamie Bevan for its failings while doing nothing of any substance to correct them.

    Thanks for your comments.

  13. Barry Taylor,

    I asked plainly for a solution, but when I peel away the layers of veiled personal attacks I see that you offer none. I asked what is the alternative to kicking local, monoglot court service employees out of their jobs and replacing them with Welsh speakers… again no alternatives were provided.

    With no practical/workable solutions offered please tell me why I and the 89% (you’re kidding yourself if you think 11% of Merthyr could be classed as fluent) monoglot population of Merthyr should treat Welsh language activists with anything other than suspicion. Provide a working and fair solution for this difficult situation and it would be completely unreasonable to suspect that Welsh language activists might be just as much out for themselves and a monopoly on the jobs as they are linguistic rights. At present it is most certainly not unreasonable to suspect that.

    p.s. I’ll keep the pseudonym if its all the same with you thanks. Dare I point out the irony of you trying to shame me into giving you my real name at the bottom of an article about a Welsh language activist breaking into and vandalising somebody else’s property?

  14. “I asked what is the alternative to kicking local, monoglot court service employees out of their jobs and replacing them with Welsh speakers… again no alternatives were provided.”

    Why does anyone have to lose their job? You can have English-speaking staff prepare a form in English and then send it for translation to a small unit of translators (probably only one or two translators for the whole of Wales). You can still then have interpretation in the court room for people that don’t speak Welsh. The issue was about the court summons, as far as I can tell. A summons that only really needs to be translated once! Your tactic is pointless really, to try and suggest that those who want equality want to get people sacked. This tactic is as old as the hills and comes from the same territory as those who say “Welsh speakers will force non-Welsh speakers out of jobs”, particularly in the south eastern Valleys. Nobody needs to lose their job in order for equality to be achieved in the justice system. That’s the bottom line, and you don’t have a leg to stand on.

  15. “probably one or 2 translators for the whole of Wales… You can still then have interpretation in the court room for people that don’t speak Welsh”

    You’ve managed to undo your own arguement in consecutive sentences. Do you seriously expect that these ‘one or 2 translators’ are going to travel round the whole of Wales to attend the court appearences of Welsh language activists providing ‘interpretation in the courtroom’? That will hardly pacify the activists for long. What if they are unavailable? Your idea, although good, would require more like ‘one or 2’ per town… and where is the money for this going to come from? The answer is that it won’t come from anywhere in these tightened times. The only solution I can see is that all future court service positions will be advertised as Welsh speaking essential. This takes us back to my ‘old as the hills tactic’ which was never actually meant to be a tactic… more a simple reality.

  16. “Do you seriously expect that these ‘one or 2 translators’ are going to travel round the whole of Wales to attend the court appearences of Welsh language activists providing ‘interpretation in the courtroom’?”

    You misunderstand me. Translators should translate forms. Interpretation in the court room already happens, and is a separate issue to the translation of documents. Nobody has to lose their job for the sake of documents being translated so I still do not see what your point is, except to be used to divide people. Having language equality means that there would be no division at all, and that there would be equal rights. A pretty basic principle of human rights!

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