The amendments in the Law on Education provided that in state and local government general secondary educational institutions, which implement minority educational programs, commencing in the tenth grade, at least three-fifths of the total teaching hour load of studies shall take place in Latvian.
The complainants, 20 Members of the Parliament of the Republic of Latvia, considered that the amendments were in violation of the right to education, rights of minorities and prohibition of discrimination enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia, European Convention on Human Rights and other international human rights documents.
The Court firstly spoke about the historical development of the minority educational programs. In the beginning of the 1990ties when Latvia regained its independence there were many schools where pupils were taught only in Russian therefore after graduating from these schools they were experiencing difficulties in labour market and in application process to the institutions of higher education because of their lack of knowledge of Latvian. Therefore minority educational programs were introduced (in which some subjects were thought bilingually and some in Latvian) as a provisional measure to introduce Latvian language in the curriculum of the Russian-teaching schools. The disputed amendments were the next step towards the integration of these educational programs into the network of Latvian educational system.
Although the Constitutional Court agreed that the amendments limit the rights of minorities to some extent, they also pointed out that this limitation is aimed at the protection of Latvian language and society and integration. Furthermore, the amendments allow for some margin of appreciation for the minority schools to teach part of the subjects in the language of the minority, to implement education materials and methods in more than one language etc. Therefore as the amendments allow the development of the culture, language and traditions for the minorities, the Court considered that the rights of the minorities are not violated.
The Court reminded of the criteria that have to be evaluated in order to determine whether a discrimination has taken place:
- which persons are situated in comparable or completely different positions
- does the disputed norm provides for comparable or different treatment towards these persons
- does the different treatment have a well reasoned and objective ground, is there a legitimate aim for it and is the principle of proportionality satisfied
It went on to explain that, according to the principle of equality, persons in comparable or similar situations must be treated in the same manner, while persons in different situations must be treated differently.
The Court found that ethnic Latvian pupils and pupils belonging to ethnical minorities are in different positions, but it also found that the Education law is treating these persons differently, by providing special minority educational programs to the latter. The amendments, by gradually introducing the Latvian language in the minority education programs, are however treating above mentioned groups differently only partially. Therefore the Court found that the amendments create a limitation.
The limitation was found to have two legitimate aims – the protection of Latvian language and protection of the rights of those persons belonging to ethnical minorities who wished to obtain education in Latvian. The Court agreed to the opinion of the representatives of the Ministry of Education who maintained that the limitation was suitable to achieve these aims, as the Latvian language must not only be taught in Latvian language classes but also put to practice in other subjects in school in order to gain practical skills in it. Furthermore, the norm provides flexibility for the schools to determine which subjects are taught in Latvian and which in minority language.
The Court stated that it could not be proven at the time how the disputed amendments will influence the quality of the education in minority schools. Up until the time of the judgment various schools had had various experiences, some being very successful in implementing Latvian language in the education process, while some not. Therefore, the Constitutional Court ruled that the amendments must be interpreted as allowing transitional process to take place for 3 more years during which the subjects can be taught in 2 languages in the schools – Latvian and minority language. That would guarantee that the limitation of the right to education also of pupils with weak Latvian language skills is proportional.
Therefore it was ruled that the contested amendments are compatible with the right to education and prohibition of discrimination if they are interpreted correctly.