AK: 'Nelery' mother's victory may require law change

Soft toy emblazoned with a name that passed up all three levels of Estonia's court system, over a two-and-a-half year period.
Soft toy emblazoned with a name that passed up all three levels of Estonia's court system, over a two-and-a-half year period. Source: ERR

Authorities may no longer be able to refuse to register names spelled with 'foreign' letters, following a recent Supreme Court ruling which overrode officials in the town of Rakvere who had done just that, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Tuesday night.

The mother of the child at the heart of the case says that interior ministry intimidation was prevalent, and that the latter had joined forces with Rakvere authorities in order to steamroll her.

The Supreme Court threw out the case, concerning a child called Nelery, now aged two-and-a-half, following a long-running battle on the used of the letter 'y' in her first name. This character does not appear in the Estonian alphabet, with 'ü' taking the position of the same phoneme that would be denoted by 'y' in the Finnish language, for instance.

The Supreme Court action has created a precedent, with the interior ministry, the ministry ultimately responsible for personal naming conventions, drafting legal amends, though it is not clear when these will be implemented.

Ministry official: Rakvere official was simply doing their job

Nelery's mother, Kadri Trilljärv, says she still does not understand why Rakvere authorities took the matter all the way to the highest court in the land, simply to prove the point and to require her to spell the name with an 'i', (i.e. "Neleri").

However, Enel Pungas, head of the interior ministry's population department, said that the official who had done so was simply performing their job properly.

Pungas also said that in future, using a "foreign" letter would require a pre-existing person with the same spelling already registered in Estonia, at least for the time being while the new legislation is drafted – though, in Pungas' opinion, this requirement should also appear in the new legislation.

However, it is widely reported that there is already a "Nelery", same spelling, born and registered in Estonia and now in their mid-twenties (in fact a social media search reveals two accounts with this first name in Estonia – ed.). No issues were reported when their first name was originally registered.

The law had previously only required parents or guardians prove that there was at least a single individual in the world with the same official name. While there are indeed individuals worldwide called/spelled "Nelery", the fact that an individual in Estonia had that spelling renders the law change point a fait accompli anyway.

Court battle lasted more than two years

The current law was drafted about a decade ago and aimed at curbing parents' creative leeway in name spelling – AK gave an example of "Chätryn", which Pungas says would have to stand if a so-named person was born in Estonia and now resides in Finland, for instance.

Kadri Trilljärv, Nelery's mother, faced a more than two-year court battle on the issue, i.e. practically her child's entire life-span so far. Trilljärv told ERR she believes that officials at the national and local level look out for each other first and foremost.

Trilljärv told AK that: "I myself saw that this type of cooperation going on really strongly between the city of Rakvere and the Ministry of the Interior, actually ganging up on one person. In the meantime, I got the feeling that while I might still be able to stand up to the city of Rakvere, the ministry intimidated me," he said.

Once the Supreme Court had thrown the case out, however, Trilljärv was able to obtain a birth certificate for Nelery within three days.

The legal battle saw the first and second-tier county and circuit courts rule in Trilljärv's favor, but, undeterred, Rakvere City Government and the Ministry of the Interior opted to take the matter to the Supreme Court a second time (the first appeal coming between the county and circuit court rulings), for it to hear the case in cassation.*

However, on March 9, the Supreme Court – based in Tartu – rejected the application.

New coalition has not dealt with legislation change yet

Trilljärv said she feels more reasonable bureaucracy would have been better, something which, she says, would remove the need for legislative changes.

Speaking of the latter, Enel Pungas said the new Center/Reform administration has not had time to deal with the matter, which would require an amendment to the Names Act, yet. The current interior minister is Kristian (with an 'i' -ed.) Jaani. For the bulk of the long-running Nelery case, interior minister was Mart Helme (EKRE), with the post being held by Social Democrats (Andres Anvelt and then Katri Raik) when the saga began.

The relevant sections of the Names Act are aimed at preventing same-sex couples taking the one second name, and also limits criminals' ability to change their second name.

In official Estonian orthography, while Estonian has four vowels (ä, ö, ü and the famous Estonian õ) and two consonants (ž, š) which do not appear in the English-language variant of the Roman alphabet, the Estonian alphabet lacks the latter's 'c', 'q', 'w', 'x' and, as noted, 'y' letters.

In practice these characters often substitute for Estonian-specific letters in email addresses and other computer-related applications, appear in foreign loan words and indeed names, even of Estonian citizens.

A brief survey of the current Riigikogu composition reveals two MPs with a 'c' in their second names (Kristan Michal and Heiki Kranich), plus four with a 'y' in either name (Merry Aart, Annely Akkermann, Yoko Alender and Heidy Purga).

Earlier forms of written Estonian, for instance during the period of the first republic, used a 'w' where 'v' would nowadays be used, for instance in the word 'Rahwa' (meaning the people or the public), and in various proper names, sometimes cropping up in street names, such as Wismari, in Tallinn.

*Courts of cassation, in countries where they exist, either in their own right or as a function of the Supreme Court - such as in Estonia, do not re-examine the facts of a case, they only interpret the relevant law.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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