Court clears way for priest to face trial on drink driving charges after he claimed his human rights were breached

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The way has been cleared for the trial on drink driving charges of a parish priest and native Irish speaker after the High Court refused to declare a failure to provide him with some official documents in Irish breached the State’s constitutional obligations.

Fr Donnchadh Ó Cuinn, parish priest of Falcarragh, Co Donegal, is charged with driving in excess of the legal limit for alcohol on March 29, 2014 at Main Street, Letterkenny. He denies the charge.

In judicial review proceedings, he argued, as a native Irish speaker, he is entitled to conduct official business through Irish, his native language, the national language and the first official language of the State.

He claimed the State defendants breached those rights in failing to make available in Irish some official documents, including the relevant District Court rules and Statutory Instrument.

The documents at issue were not available in Irish, only in English, at the time of the alleged offence in March 2014, but have since been made available in Irish.

Fr Ó Cuinn secured leave in November 2014 to bring the judicial review. 

The High Court’s Ms Justice Bronagh O’Hanlon ruled in late 2015 that Fr Ó Cuinn was entitled to certain declarations but the State appealed. 

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and sent the matter back to a different High Court judge for reconsideration. 

It was heard there by Mr Justice Frank Clarke who was later appointed to the Supreme Court and is now the Chief Justice.

In his reserved judgment on Friday, Mr Justice Clarke refused to grant the declarations sought. 

He told Colm Ó hOisín SC, for the State, and Seamus Ó Tuatháil SC, for Fr Ó Cúinn, costs issues would be addressed in October.

In his judgment, the judge said he had addressed language rights in the case in a way that showed language rights cannot be used to prohibit a trial but, in certain circumstances, such rights can be raised at the trial itself.

He refused to grant a declaration the State and DPP had breached constitutional obligations in not providing Fr O Cúinn with an official translation in the national language, the first official language, of the District Court rules as soon as possible following their publication in English.

He refused that declaration in circumstances including the rules were available in Irish by the time of trial.

The general principle that the State is obliged to provide the rules of court in Irish and English is well established, he also observed.

He refused to grant a second declaration that the breath alcohol form on which the charge depends was not, because it was printed out only in English, a statement in the form required under Section 13 of the Road Traffic Act 2010 and regulations of 2011 made under the Act.  

In light of a Supreme Court judgment rejecting claims by a Romanian man, Mihai Avandei, his drink driving prosecution could not proceed because he was not supplied with a breath alcohol statement in Irish as well as in English, there was no basis for such a declaration, he said.  

In the case of Mr Avandei, of Swords, Co Dublin, the Supreme Court stressed the issues to be decided did not relate to any asserted constitutional entitlement to an Irish language version of the statement relied upon to prove the breath alcohol level but rather its evidential status.

The court found, while the relevant regulations require a single bilingual form to be provided in two identical versions, Section 12 of the Interpretation Act applied because the deviation from the prescribed form did not materially affect the substance of the form and no right of Mr Avandei’s was breached.  

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