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The EU's top court has considered its first ever case in the Irish language. It's about labels on dog medicine

It’s the first time a case at the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice has been conducted through Irish.

Image: Shutterstock/4 PM production

THE EUROPEAN UNIONS’ top court has considered its first ever case in the Irish language, handing down a preliminary opinion this morning.

It marks the first time a case at the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice has been conducted through Irish since Ireland joined the EU in 1973.

Peadar Mac Fhlannchadha, Advocacy Manager at Conradh na Gaeilge, brought the challenge to complain about the labelling on animal medicines being in English only. The native Irish speaker, who has a pet dog, argued that a 2001 EU Directive required labels to be in both English and Irish.

In 2019, the High Court decided that he was right. But Ms Justice Úna Ní Raifeartaigh also pointed out that a replacement Directive is coming into force in January 2022 which will make Irish-language labelling of pet medicines optional.

She sent the case to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg asking whether it would be worthwhile to enforce bilingual labelling only up until January 2022, after which point it would no longer be legally required.

The issue for the Court of Justice is whether the High Court is entitled to essentially overlook breaches of EU law. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine — the defendant in the case — argued that “granting of relief would serve no useful purpose since the applicant understands the information in English”.

It also pointed to a risk that veterinary medicine producers would pull out of the Irish market if the High Court insisted on strict enforcement of EU rules that are changing soon anyway.

All the documents sent in to the Court of Justice by both sides were in Irish and translated into French, the working language of the court. The hearing itself, which took place in Luxembourg, was also as Gaeilge and simultaneously translated for the judges.

The EU has 24 official languages and any of them can be used before the Court of Justice. Irish has never been deployed in the history of Ireland’s EU membership, although it only became an official EU language in 2007.

Today’s opinion is by a senior court official called the Advocate General. This position has no direct equivalent in the Irish legal system, but is essentially a legal adviser to the Court of Justice who writes a legal analysis of the case before the judges make up their minds.

An Advocate General’s opinion is not binding on the court, but in practice the judges often follow it when they make their final ruling.

Advocate General Michal Bobek wrote that the central issue in the case was not so much
language rights as “what are the reasonable limits to the requirement of an effective
enforcement of EU law at national level?”.

The “bottom line”, Bobek decided, is that “EU law does not take away, even if rights based on EU law are at stake, the discretion a national court is normally endowed with for finding a case-appropriate and proportionate outcome to an individual case, including the choice of relief to be granted to the applicant”.

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In other words, the High Court should be entitled not to strictly enforce the packaging laws if the Irish judge decides that is the best way forward.

The case will now be considered by a panel of judges, who are likely to follow Bobek’s
recommendation but don’t have to. After that, the case will go back to the High Court.

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