Civil servants must post a notice of their absence in both official languages
If a civil servant working at a bilingual authority uses the opportunity that e-mail provides to send an automatic notice of absence when he or she is away from the workplace, the message must be drafted in both Finnish and Swedish, in the view of Deputy-Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen. This is necessary in order for language rights to be respected on a basis of equality.
The Deputy-Ombudsman has investigated a complaint to the effect that some civil servants at the Etelä-Suomi State Provincial Office, the City of Espoo, the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Council, the Espoo District Court and the Ministry of Justice have drafted their e-mail message in Finnish only. The complainant had received acknowledgements from some civil servants in English only.
Deputy-Ombudsman Jääskeläinen notes in his decision on the complaint that legislation does not oblige an individual civil servant to post a notice of absence at his or her e-mail address; what is involved is a voluntary service. In his view, however, posting a notice of absence is to be recommended, because it promotes implementation of the service principle that is in accordance with the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right to good administration and the Administrative Procedure Act. A notice of absence lets the person who has sent an e-mail know why his or her message is not immediately replied to. That way, the sender is not left in uncertainty about what has happened to the message. The Deputy-Ombudsman emphasises that an authority can always provide better service than what is specifically required by law.
In the view of the Deputy-Ombudsman, the principles expressed in the provisions of the Language Act should be applied, in accordance with a fundamental-rights-positive interpretation of the Act, to civil servants' notices of absence. When a civil servant drafts a notice that he or she is absent from the workplace, the message should be in both Finnish and Swedish. These notices are a service to clients and information intended for them and must convey the message that clients are served in both official languages.
The Deputy-Ombudsman has informed the authorities mentioned in the complaint of his opinion in the matter. He has likewise sent a copy of his decision to the Ministry of Finance for its information and asked the Ministry to inform him, by the end of 2008, of what measures his decision may have made necessary. The Ministry of Finance is responsible for the development of administration.
Additional information will be provided by Legal Adviser Mikko Sarja, tel. +358 (0)9 432 3364.