• July 9, 2023
  • 176

Constitutional Court sides with the original spelling of surnames

Constitutional Court sides with the original spelling of surnames

The Constitutional Court declared that the letters “x”, “q” and “w” in official documents are not contradictory to the Basic Law. Dainius Žalimas called it “victory over stupid nationalism”. Katarzyna Bogdziewicz adds that it is worth waiting for a decision on diacritics. 

Last week, the Constitutional Court stated that the statute’s amendment about surname spelling in documents from 2022 complies with the Basic Law. In January 2022, Sejm approved the statute’s amendments, which allowed the usage of the letters “w”, “x”, and “q” in official Lithuanian documents. The statute involves two exceptions. In the case when a Lithuanian citizen marries a foreigner, the surname will automatically be copied from the husband’s documents, with diacritics. The project also allows for a change in the spelling of names and surnames for the members of national minorities. In this case, the name and surname will be able to be inscribed with the signs of the Latin alphabet according to the rules of the language of the minority, but without the possibility of using letters which don’t exist in the Latin alphabet, such as “ń”, “ć” or “ó”. However, it allows using letters such as “ą”, “ę”, “cz” and “sz”.

Request from members of parliament

In the autumn of last year, a group of parliament members made a request to the Constitutional Court for a conformity assessment of the amended statute with the Constitution. The applicants pleaded the Constitutional Court’s statement from 2014, which states that alongside the change in the procedure of spelling of names and surnames in passports of a Lithuanian citizens, the legislator is obligated to refer to the Commission of the Lithuanian Language, whose official opinion is binding for all public authorities. According to the group of parliament members, Sejm didn’t take into consideration the opinion of the Commission. This negated a part of the project that concerned national minorities’ representatives.

The Constitutional Court stated that the Commission, voicing its disagreement, “wasn’t motivated by the facts that these instances could be a threat to the whole of the Lithuanian language, its uniqueness or were contradictory to its tradition”.

“The Constitutional Court, possibly even in 2014, opened the door to such a solution. It was explained that if the usage of particular letters isn’t a threat to the integrity and uniqueness of the Lithuanian language, such letters are permitted. Personally, I’ve never noticed any threat to the Lithuanian language in such a case. I believe that in the 21. century, seeing a threat in using certain letters, even if they are diacritics, aligns more with 19. century thinking”, said Dainius Žalimas, dean of the faculty of law at the Vytautas Magnus University and former leader of the Constitutional Court of Lithuania, in an interview with “Kurier Wileński”.

Politicians’ fault

The former leader of the Constitutional Court of Lithuania notes that the disagreement about a few letters that took this many years is the politicians’ fault.

“This applies to members of parliament playing populism and practising irresponsible politics. It applies to those who seek popularity for promoting stupid nationalism. This is why such a statement by the Constitutional Court is what I call victory over stupid nationalism. When populists promote something nationalist and find applause from a part of the population, making up frighteners, then such matters always pass with resistance. This is also applicable to other matters concerning human rights because usually, the resistance comes from the same people, the same members of parliament.”, concluded Dainius Žalimas.

An attorney from Mykolas Romeris University, PhD Katarzyna Bogdziewicz expected such a statement, although it was not without concern.

“The previous explanations of the Constitutional Court weren’t favourable towards the original spelling of names and surnames, however, they weren’t specific enough to pave the way towards today’s solution. Now, the Constitutional Court clearly stated that the usage of such letters is not contradictory to the Constitution. Therefore in this case the matter is closed, at most, the Constitution will be amended”, emphasised the interlocutor of “Kurier Wileński”.

Wołkonowski’s case

In June 2022, the District Court in Vilnius allowed Jarosław Wołkonowski to have his name and surname spelt on the identity card with diacritics. After winning a case, the General Prosecutor’s Office requested the case to be re-opened, and then the court turned to the Constitutional Court of Lithuania for clarification. Katarzyna Bogdziewicz hopes that this case will also be resolved in favour of the Polish minority.

“I think that the present statement from the Constitutional Court of Lithuania can approximate the next problem solution with the original spelling. If in this case there is no contradiction to the Constitution, I hope it will also rule on the issue of diacritics. Because the situation at the moment is that some people can write their name in the original and others cannot. This means that there are people who are equal and equal-er.”, emphasised the attorney.

According to her, the Constitutional Court can play a greater role in solving the Sejm’s problem.

“As we know, parliament members will bring up the matter from time to time. We also know that the Sejm can reject it or postpone its consideration. However, if there will be an appropriate statement from the Constitutional Court concerning diacritics, then the Sejm is obligated to refer to it within 6 months. Even if the Sejm delays implementing a statement, anyone can go to court and refer to the ruling. The court would then award cases on an automatic basis”, summed up Katarzyna Bogdziewicz.

Translated by Katarzyna Dudzik within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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