Justice issues in Europe - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 20-39)



  Q20  Alun Michael: Presumably, therefore, you would be able to give some description some way down the line, but it would be impressionistic.

  Emma Gibbons: Maybe when we have had some experience of implementing the measure.

  Q21  Alun Michael: How are judicial authorities encouraged to make effective use of Eurojust in its capacity as, I understand it to be, the co-ordinating body?

  Lord Bach: Eurojust has become, for us, an invaluable source of assistance for our authorities involved in investigating and prosecuting serious crime. You may well know, the Home Affairs Select Committee of your House concluded that Eurojust produces an excellent example of what can be done to build mutual trust.

  Q22  Alun Michael: Can you give us some practical examples of positive outcomes?

  Lord Bach: Yes, if I may, I will give you one called Operation Golf. The UK, in that case, was involved in a joint investigation team (I think, described as JIT) with Romania, assisted by Eurojust and Europol. The operation involved the disappearance of some 1,100 children from a single town in Romania. The children were being trafficked, often with the collusion of their parents, to Spain and to the UK for begging, shoplifting and to exploit (in the UK) our benefits system in this country. Intercepts have discovered that each child can earn up to as much as £100,000 per year for the leaders of the organised crime group. There have been 12 arrests because of Eurojust getting together, if I can call it that, 12 arrests in our country, for money laundering and conspiracy to defraud charges, with a further three suspects being sought, and the team achieved the first UK conviction involving trafficking of a child and uncovered and rescued five further victims of child exploitation as well as evidence of systematic and very widespread benefit fraud. That is one example I can give you where Eurojust played an important part. Another at the other end of the scale, an Al Qaeda-related terrorism case, Eurojust co-ordinated (because that is its skill really) the simultaneous execution of European arrest warrants in Italy, France, Romania, Portugal and the UK nearly two years ago, at the end of 2007. The suspects specialised in forging residence permits, IT cards and passports and documents were seized, including manuals for making explosives. Those are two examples of where, in a really practical way, Eurojust does seem to be able to bring some bad villains to justice.

  Q23  Alun Michael: Thank you; that is helpful. Obviously the training of our judges, prosecutors and other legal professionals who are working in the field of criminal justice is important. To what extent do you feel that the EU funding that has been provided for networking and training for such professionals has improved their trust in equivalent professionals in other Member States?

  Lord Bach: I wonder if I could ask Mr Kilby to answer this. This is part of his expertise.

  Edwin Kilby: Chairman, we do think it has proved effective. Certainly, UK judges and prosecutors have been participating in exchanges, arranged at European level, designed to help mutual understanding of each other's legal systems. My understanding is that these have been working well and have been well received. The European Judicial Training Network has a catalogue of courses which is open to European judges, which means that judges from England and Wales can attend courses run by other countries, if they so choose, who are members of European Judicial Training Network. Also the Judicial Studies Board, which is the England and Wales judicial training college, if you like, also offers training places to judges from elsewhere in Europe. In addition to that, there are study programmes which are funded to allow, as a development opportunity, two weeks for the judiciary to spend in other EU countries. Similarly, there are conferences and seminars across the EU arranged for prosecutors.

  Q24  Alun Michael: That is helpful. Can I ask you your assessment of the potential impact of the Prisoner Transfer Agreement on the number of EU nationals detained in British prisons when it comes into force in 2011?

  Lord Bach: The end of that year, I think, is the plan.

  Q25  Alun Michael: At that point, what are you expecting to be the impact on numbers?

  Lord Bach: We are expecting a significant reduction over a period of time following the coming into being of the framework decision. The number of EU nationals held in British prisons will diminish, will go down. We are a great believer in this. We actually think, wherever possible, foreign national prisoners should serve their sentences in their own country. We think transfer to the home country does allow for more efficient preparation for the prisoners' release and resettlement and enables families to keep in closer touch, hopefully, wherever the prisoner comes from, in order to reduce reoffending when they eventually leave their prison; but, as you say, it is the end of 2011 that the framework decision will come into force.

  Q26  Alun Michael: Turning to the question of the e-Justice portal, are there any potential pitfalls there, how can e-Justice be further developed to benefit UK citizens and, associated with that, it was described by the UK Government as an area which often requires considerable financial input. Can you tell me, what is the estimated cost to the UK of current and planned e-Justice projects and is the finance provided to meet the required levels?

  Lord Bach: Let me try and start, and then I will pass on to Mr Kilby, with your permission. We do support the work that is ongoing on European e-Justice because, again, it is the argument that it can deliver practical benefits to EU citizens. There are 2.2 million British citizens across the 26 other EU states at the moment, which is a very large number indeed, many of them living their lives there or working there temporarily or studying, and, of course, their knowledge of that country's laws, that country's institutions, the way people live in that country through the web can be very much improved and increased; so we are a supporter of e-Justice. Of course, the portal is the main project at the present time, a website that at its start will function as a point of access to a range of information on justice matters across the whole EU, and, in time, further other functions, we hope, will be added. The portal was due for launch in December, but we are told it is now likely to be launched in the New Year. We see a lot of potential benefits. I have mentioned one or two of them. As far as the pitfalls are concerned—I think, Mr Michael, that is the question you asked—I will ask Mr Kilby to set them out.

  Q27  Alun Michael: Is he sharing out the good news and the bad news?

  Lord Bach: I imagine the bad news.

  Edwin Kilby: I am delighted to be the bearer of bad news! If we are talking about potential pitfalls of the e-Justice system, if I may say so, I think they are all matters which can be managed with appropriate care, but, obviously, it is only useful to have a portal designed to provide information to the general public if that information is accurate and up-to-date. So, clearly, there needs to be a certain discipline in making sure that Member States do keep that information up-to-date and provide timely amendments when they are needed. Other issues which have occurred to us are the need to ensure proper authentication processes, to ensure that information which is not meant to be in the public domain does only get provided to the people for whom it is intended—for example, information about criminal records—and, linked to that, clearly, it is important that we ensure security of the information transfer and the protection of our systems from the possibility of cyber attack.

  Q28  Chairman: You tell us about all these management problems you are going to have, but this is the department which, according to the Public Accounts Committee, has wasted £41 million with cost over-runs and delays in the NOMIS computer project. Are the people running this project better than the people you have got in the department who were doing it at the time, and, even at the UK end, can the department meet its commitment to this project?

  Lord Bach: We believe we can. Of course, we read the contents of the C-NOMIS report and I need hardly tell you, Chairman, that we will duly respond in full in due course to it, but as far as the e-Justice programme is concerned and the emergence of the portal, hopefully next year, early next year, yes, I think we are confident that that project is moving ahead well.

  Q29  Chairman: It is a genuine question. I am not trying to throw bad news back at you. Have the European institutions involved and has the department actually got the technical skills in place to manage a big project of this kind?

  Edwin Kilby: We are confident that we can and would point to some of the successes that we have already seen, one of which is the Money Claims Online process, which handles about 500 cases a day.

  Q30  Chairman: How many a day?

  Edwin Kilby: 500 cases a day, Money Claims Online, and there are other things as well. There is a portal for secure access to criminal cases which has been piloted in some court areas. We also make use of video conferencing, which also ought to be seen as part of e-Justice. This works well: it saves time and money in the transfer of prisoners between courts and prisons for short hearings. Perhaps I ought to just take the opportunity to point out that as far as the e-Justice portal is concerned, that is something that will be managed by the European Commission. It will not be directly managed by anybody here.

  Lord Bach: I do not know whether you consider that good news or bad news.

  Q31  Chairman: I did pose the question: have we got confidence that they have got the management skills available as well.

  Edwin Kilby: We understand that technical experts are responsible for this, and we have no reason to believe that they are taking on more than they can chew.

  Q32  Chairman: Can you just repeat that? You do not believe that they are taking—

  Edwin Kilby: Forgive me. We have every confidence that they are not biting off more than they can chew.

  Chairman: A phrase you could possibly live to regret, but let us move on.

  Q33  Mrs Riordan: The UK's position on legal aid is seen as generous in comparison with other EU Member States, but, of course, there are significant differences in the legal systems in question. Is it not the case that the adversarial nature of the criminal courts in England and Wales dictates the level and nature of the criminal legal aid system to a large extent?

  Lord Bach: Yes, it certainly has an effect. Indeed, as you may well know, there is a report that we have got on our website, an international comparative study that came out last week from the Centre for Criminal Justice, Economics and Psychology at the University of York, which had some interesting, if tentative, findings about this; but there is no doubt that the fact that our system is adversarial, as opposed to most continental systems that are not, does mean that their judge and court costs seem to be much higher, while our legal aid costs expenditure is much higher. It becomes more interesting when you compare our legal aid expenditure to that of other common law countries, such as Commonwealth countries. There still we seem to be very generous in terms of legal aid. As far as Europe is concerned, of course, legal aid is one of the measures arising out of the roadmap. We have to be concerned that we do not raise our legal aid expenditure as a consequence of this particular measure. We already spend, as you know, £2.1 billion per year on it, which is so much higher than all our European partners. In civil legal aid there is a directive that seems to, I think, work pretty well. Legal aid can be granted for access to pre-litigation advice, legal assistance and representation in court and exemption from, or assistance with, the cost of proceedings, including the cross-border nature of some case costs. There must be a means test, and the decision is taken by the relevant authority in the Member State—here by the Legal Services Commission. Criminal legal aid: different matters apply because of Article 6, of course. The right to a fair trial provides that everyone charged with a criminal offence has the right to defend himself in person or through legal assistance, and this applies across the EU, but there should be a more even system for legal aid for defendants across Europe and is certainly something the measure will have to look at very carefully. I do think, and I probably say it because I am, for my sins, the legal aid minister, that we are not only generous but the way in which we pay legal aid for criminal offences in this country is pretty good.

  Q34  Mrs Riordan: But surely if we have got that adversarial nature, then that legal aid needs to be granted and perhaps needs to be higher than other EU states if their courts are different.

  Lord Bach: I would accept that. I would accept that that will always be so. Making these comparisons is very difficult actually, as the academics found in both this report and previous ones, and I know the Committee will have looked at this. It is very difficult to draw great conclusions from it, but, undoubtedly, other countries in Europe spend more on their judges because their judges are playing a much earlier and more prominent part in proceedings.

  Q35  Mrs Riordan: To what extent are negotiations going on through the EU about fundamental rights, with the practical issues of how those rights are going to be implemented and, finally, who should pay the bill?

  Lord Bach: Legal aid is not yet on the agenda, as far as negotiations are concerned, for a measure. Its turn will come, and, indeed, on October 23 at the Luxembourg JHA it was referred to and I made the point that, as much as we like the roadmap and the measure that hopefully will follow, we ourselves are not going to be in a position to pay more legal aid than we do already. I think it will be a question of what some other countries do, even under their different legal system.

  Q36  Mrs Riordan: What are the prospects for the introduction of procedures for enforcement of cross-border cases as one of the Stockholm programme priority areas?

  Lord Bach: I will ask Mr Kilby to answer this.

  Edwin Kilby: As far as civil cases are concerned, that is one of the things that we have sought to interest other Member States in. I think there is some recognition in that area that, although we have good rules for mutual recognition of judgments, the rules, as yet, do not allow any European mechanism to come into play when it comes to actually enforcing the judgment. I hope that answers your question.

  Q37  Mrs Riordan: Thank you. To what extent is it the UK Government's responsibility to ensure that UK citizens have a better understanding of the relevant laws and penalties in other Member States, with particular reference to traffic laws?

  Lord Bach: The Government does not have a responsibility to ensure that UK citizens resident in other Member States are aware of laws in those Member States. We do not have a responsibility for that. British embassies, though, do provide general information, of course, to people working or travelling abroad and, importantly, going back to the e-Justice portal now (and I made this point, I think), information on national procedures will, hopefully, soon be available on that portal. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office's website provides travel advice and also further advice, more than travel. It contains information about what to do and assistance that is available. The European Commission, apparently, also administers a website giving information about civil and family law in all the EU Member States, and that has been useful to practitioners as well as to members of the public on both national laws and practices and relevant Community law. That website receives, apparently, several hundred thousand hits each month and will be available in due course through the new e-Justice portal itself. So whilst strictly we do not have a responsibility, it is obviously something we take an interest in.

  Q38  Mrs Riordan: What can the EU do to strengthen the enforcement of these measures, in particular the driving offences, across the borders?

  Edwin Kilby: We think that the framework decision on mutual recognition of financial penalties will help. That does allow for a criminal penalty imposed in one Member State to be transferred to and enforced in another, and that covers things like fines, fixed penalty notices, penalty notices for things like disorder, compensation and court costs. The only qualification is that there is a threshold of 70 euros.

  Q39  Chairman: What about driving disqualifications?

  Emma Gibbons: There is a convention on the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications, which was agreed in 1998, I believe. It has not entered into force, for a number of reasons, mainly because the procedures for implementing conventions are just lengthy. There has been talk about resurrecting that. I am sure it will be discussed in the context of the Stockholm work programme. At the moment there is no mechanism for recognition of disqualifications in force between Member States.

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