The new service structure created in the health and social services reform will secure citizens' language rights. Customers and patients will have the right to use either official language, Finnish or Swedish, in administrative matters and to receive official documents in the official language of their choice. Language rights are laid down in the current Language Act, Sámi Language Act and Sign Language Act as well as in the Act on Organising Health and Social Services under preparation.
Health and social services functions will be provided in both official languages – Finnish and Swedish – if the county includes monolingual municipalities with different languages or bilingual municipalities. If all municipalities in a county are monolingual, services and related administration will be provided in that language. Of the proposed counties, six will be bilingual, with Swedish as the minority language in all except Ostrobothnia.
According to the Language Act, a public authority must on its own initiative ensure that an individual’s language rights are fulfilled in practice. When services are provided, compliance with the Language Act must be ensured.
The right to use the Sámi language in official transactions mainly applies to the Sámi homeland – the municipalities of Enontekiö, Inari and Utsjoki and part of Sodankylä. At present, Sámi people have the right to use the Sámi language in health and social services in the municipalities of the Sámi homeland and in the Lapland Hospital District. However, local authorities are not required by law to provide health and social services in the Sámi language. Providing a Sámi interpreter satisfies the requirements of the law.
Participation by customers and patients must be ensured in situations where the customer/patient and personnel have no language in common, or the customer/patient cannot make himself or herself understood because of a sensory disability or speech impediment. This includes users of Finnish and Swedish sign language. In situations where the customer/patient and personnel have no language in common, care must be taken to ensure that the customer/patient understands the matter at hand sufficiently well and that he or she is able to express his or her opinion. If an interpreter is not available, this must be managed by other means.
Citizens of the Nordic countries have the right to use their native language – Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish or Swedish. In such a case, county authorities must ensure that citizens of Nordic countries are provided the interpreting and translation services they require. This right derives from the Nordic Convention on Social Assistance and Social Services. Speakers of other languages, including foreigners, should also be accommodated in their own language as far as possible.
Counties belonging to a collaborative catchment area must enter into an agreement concerning the regional harmonisation of health and social services, including measures to ensure the enjoyment of language rights. The Government confirms the national and strategic objectives on the organising of health and social services every four years. These objectives must include objectives for ensuring language rights.
The Counties Act under preparation will lay down that the county executives shall establish a Language Minority Committee for each bilingual county. The members of this organ are to be selected from the minority language speakers of the county. The organ will have the task of examining, assessing and defining the minority's need of services, and it will also monitor and develop the availability and quality of the relevant services.
If a county includes any municipality that is located in the Sámi homeland, the county executive must set up a Language Minority Committee for the Sámi language. The members of this organ will be selected from representatives of Sámi speakers of the county.
Maria Porko, Senior Specialist, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, tel. + 358 295 163 417
Pirjo Kainulainen, Ministerial Counsellor, Legal Affairs, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, tel. + 358 295 163 092