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Friday, 22 August 2003


Everyone needs to let off steam from time to time and the IPKat is no exception. In this, the first of an occasional series of gripes, the IPKat demands urgent action in getting European Court of Justice (ECJ) cases translated into the 11 (soon to be 21) languages of the European Union without undue delay. ECJ decisions may go weeks or even months before they have been translated into all the EU’s major languages, not to mention the minor ones. Opinions of the Advocate General ― which are often more important than the final decisions because they contain far more detailed legal reasoning ― may wait years for translation. To give just one example, the Opinion of the Advocate General in Campina Melkunie (the BIOMILD case) has been unavailable in Danish, English and Greek since it was delivered on 31 January 2002.

This delay in translating is wrong in principle and damages competition for legal services in the EU. Consider this example: an important ECJ parallel trade ruling is issued in French and German but there is no available official English or Spanish translation. A US attorney seeks urgent legal advice from his European counterparts but can only get it from French and German speaking attorneys. Even if English and Spanish practitioners read the other languages in which the judgment has been issued, they have no reliable and officially sanctioned text upon which they can rely, which puts them at a great disadvantage. Once a language is frequently stigmatised by late translation or no translation at all, it can do nothing for the morale of practitioners in countries like Greece and Portugal whose lawyers practise with a perennial linguistic disadvantage and whose students must constantly study foreign-language texts of laws and decisions so fundamental to their studies.

The ECJ will say, correctly, that legal translation is a time-consuming, labour-intensive and expensive activity and that someone has to pay for it. However, all of the official languages of the EU are meant to be equally authoritative and there are good political reasons why this should be the case. However, failing to translate into some languages suggests that those languages are less important than the others. This violates the principle of equal access to the law. It also makes it difficult for companies and individuals to plan their legal and business affairs if they cannot gain access to the law in a language that they understand. While ignorance of the law is no defence, people in jurisdictions where a translation is not available in their language have no option but to remain ignorant.

So what can be done? The intellectual property profession is wealthy and profitable. Its clients create and enforce cash-generating monopolies. The IPKat asks: (i) how much extra would it cost to translate all ECJ decisions and opinions into all EU working languages? (ii) cannot the option to pay this extra sum be given to those of us who need access to the law in order to do our daily work?

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