Montreal's transit corporation is defending its interpretation of Quebec's language laws, saying it cannot force its ticket takers to serve customers in any language other than French.

The vice-chair of the transit corporation (STM), Marvin Rotrand, said the corporation has its hands tied with regards to Bill 101, unless services in English are proven to be essential.

"Basically, we have to operate in French unless we can prove an absolute necessity in certain categories," said Rotrand.

"At the STM, we do have categories where that is necessary. For example, the people operating the [phones] have to be able to answer questions in English."

However, he said bus drivers or those who work at ticket kiosks don't fall under that category.

Rotrand said the corporation consulted with its legal department and agreed that the language laws apply directly to the transit authority.

"We have a huge volume of jurisprudence as to what our obligations are under Bill 101," he said.

Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey says Quebec's language laws do not prevent the STM from serving customers in English.

"Bill 101 creates an obligation to serve in French and also allows employees to work in French. It in no way prevents serving in English or in another language and it, in fact, does provide — when you have a demand for it — for the right to hire an employee for the expressed purpose of serving the English customers," said Grey.

The transit agency responsible for commuter trains, the AMT, took a different approach and asks that any employee who deals with the public be able to speak English.

Rotrand said those who cannot speak English at the STM should be able to help customers by finding an employee who can, or by directing them to a different service, like the internet.

The STM has faced serious criticism over language issues in recent months. The corporation was forced to clarify its policy after several customers complained that ticket takers refused to speak to them in English.

In October, some passengers reported seeing a sign put up by an employee at the Villa-Maria metro ticket booth that said "Au Québec, c'est en français que ça se passe," or "In Quebec, we operate in French."

Later that month, a woman said a ticket taker physically assaulted her after refusing to serve her in English.