(CN) - An exception to the compulsory use of Italian in court must apply to all litigants and not just Italian citizens, Europe's highest court ruled Thursday.
Citizens of the city of Bolzano, in northeastern Italy, enjoy the singular distinction of being the only place in the nation where court proceedings can be conducted in a language other than Italian.
This exception exists to protect the German-speaking ethnic and cultural minority, which represents 25 percent of Bolzano's residents.
When a German national injured on one of the city's ski runs used her native tongue to draft a personal injury lawsuit in Bolzano Regional Court, however, she discovered a key limitation: the exception applies to Italian citizens only, at least according to Italy's supreme appeals court, which weighed in on the matter.
The Bolzano court then referred the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union, and asked whether noncitizens could be excluded from national rules regarding language without violating EU law.
On Thursday, the high court cited its 1998 determination that an EU citizen in criminal proceedings has the right to be tried in his own language when national law allows. This right carries over to civil matters as well, the Luxembourg-based court found.
"If it were otherwise, a German-speaking citizen of a member state other than the Italian Republic, who travels and stays in Bolzano would be treated less favorably in comparison with a German-speaking Italian national who resides in that province," the ruling states. "While such an Italian national may bring proceedings before a court in civil proceedings and have the proceedings take place in German, that right would be refused to a German-speaking citizen of a member state other than the Italian Republic, travelling in that province."
In so ruling, the court sidestepped the Italian government's concerns about the costs of extending dual-language court proceedings to tourists and passersby of Bolzano.
"It must be pointed out that that assertion is expressly contradicted by the referring court, according to which the judges in Bolzano are perfectly able to conduct judicial proceedings in either Italian or in German, or in both languages," the court wrote, adding that a government's fiscal concern rarely justifies discrimination under EU law.