Justice issues in Europe - Justice Committee Contents


Ten years after the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty, the creation of an area of freedom, security and justice for the citizens of member states of the European Union is still very much "work in progress". The development of a new five-year programme for justice and home affairs—known as the "Stockholm programme"—enables us to take stock of what has been achieved. Criminal justice measures have not been adopted at the pace of initiatives in other aspects of justice policy, including civil law. The focus has been on increasing co-operation in bringing those convicted or suspected of criminal activity to justice more effectively, by establishing common measures, such as the European arrest warrant, that can operate across the core components of criminal justice and prosecution processes of member states. This is done on the basis of mutual trust; recognising that member states will comply with rules and decisions in each others' jurisdictions as it is generally in their interest to do so.

We also look at future challenges for the UK Government as the Stockholm programme is implemented, particularly in the light of the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. The Treaty makes fundamental changes to decision-making in criminal law by introducing new voting arrangements; the UK opt-in protocol; and transition towards such law being within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This opens the door to the Commission taking infringement proceedings against member states for failing to implement agreed measures. We conclude that the complexity of arrangements which may now ensue gives rise to potential challenges for the programme's implementation.

We concentrate on matters relating to the establishment of mutual trust as the cornerstone of judicial co-operation and the extent to which it is possible to strike a balance between this and the fundamental rights of EU citizens—in particular UK citizens. The issues include the right to privacy (data protection and, conversely, the potential benefits of information sharing), procedural rights in criminal proceedings and the rights of victims. The Government's track record on implementing mutual recognition instruments is commendable but not perfect. There remain some gaps, for example, on some rights of victims. In our view, the balance between getting utility from technology, while protecting privacy in the sharing of data between law enforcement agencies, is not currently right. We urge the Government to be more candid with UK citizens about the kind of data protection safeguards it is seeking from the EU in relation to their privacy.

We welcome the introduction of a legal framework on minimum procedural guarantees for suspects and defendants and support the renewed enthusiasm that member states, including the UK, have demonstrated in devising the first of these new measures. Nevertheless, we believe that there are real risks that other accompanying measures will be more difficult to agree, or that their implementation will be hindered for practical, and financial, reasons. We fear that there will continue for some time to be disparities in the standards of protection afforded to EU citizens in the delivery of justice. While the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty has the potential to ameliorate some of these issues, EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, permitted by the Lisbon Treaty, is likely to take time to negotiate. In addition, the enhanced jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will not fully apply until 2014.

We support the UK Government's broad preference for practical, evidence-based measures, rather than new legislation. However, the extent to which it will be possible to maintain this approach in the post-Lisbon era remains to be seen. We consider the possible implications for existing instruments of the UK's opt-in protocol which enables the Government to choose whether to participate in each proposed justice measure. For example, it may be necessary to amend the European arrest warrant, the use of which is predicted to increase by 250% in the next two years, if non-legislative attempts to curb its disproportionate use by some member states are unsuccessful. The implications of the UK now choosing not to opt-in to an amendment to a measure to which it previously agreed remain unclear.

Some of the measures in the Stockholm programme, including e-justice projects, have considerable cost implications for member states. The Government has said that its participation in specific EU projects depends on the costs of participation and the likely added value that would be achieved. However, the complexity of the measures in question makes it difficult to determine cost-benefit implications with any certainty. We therefore question how the Government will control the costs of implementing the Stockholm programme.

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Prepared 6 April 2010