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Brussels, 13 December 2011

Justice Council: 14 December 2011 in Brussels

European Union Justice Ministers will meet in Brussels on 14 December 2011. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding will represent the European Commission.

Main agenda items:

  • Improving victims' rights

  • Simplifying succession rules

  • Cutting red tape in cross-border court cases

  • Common European Sales Law

  • Fair trial rights: access to a lawyer

  • European Investigation Order

  • Making access to justice easier The European e-Justice Portal

1. Improving victims' rights

Throughout the EU, an estimated 75 million people every year fall victim to crime. Such events can have devastating physical, emotional and financial consequences for victims and their families. Whether a person has been mugged while on holiday or injured during a terrorist attack, all victims should be treated with respect, offered protection and support, and be able to access justice. At the moment, laws across the EU on victims’ rights can be patchy, and do not always meet these basic needs.

What is expected at this Council? The Commission and the Polish Presidency aim to reach agreement on a general approach. This could allow finding an agreement with the European Parliament under the Danish Presidency.

Commission position: In May 2011, the Commission proposed a package of measures to provide minimum standards for victims of crime everywhere in Europe (IP/11/585). They include ensuring respect, protection during investigations and trials, and providing clear information. They will also ensure that a restraint or protection order is recognised in all Member States, so that victims can be protected when crossing a border. These measures aim to ensure that victims receive the same minimum standard of treatment, including non-discriminatory access to justice, in all EU Member States, irrespective of their nationality or country of residence. The Commission has worked hard with all Member States to achieve rapid consensus in the Council on these measures, which are putting victims first.

Background: The Commissions' victims' package contains a series of measures that address the quality of treatment that victims receive in the aftermath of a crime and during the criminal proceedings that follow. A proposed Directive will ensure that prosecutors and officials in the justice system will have to give special attention and support to vulnerable victims – particularly children and victims of domestic violence. A new Regulation on mutual recognition of civil law protection measures will ensure that victims of violence (such as domestic violence) can still rely on restraint or protection orders issued against the perpetrator if they travel or move to another EU country. Victims should feel safe wherever they decide to go in the EU.

2. Simplifying succession rules

There are around 4.5 million successions a year in the EU, of which about 10% have an international dimension. These successions are valued at about €123 billion a year. EU-wide coordination is needed to ensure that such successions are treated efficiently. On 14 October 2009, the Commission proposed a Regulation (IP/09/1508) to substantially simplify succession rules in often difficult situations. Under this Regulation, there would be a single criterion for determining both the jurisdiction of the authorities and the law applicable to a cross-border succession: the deceased's habitual place of residence. People living abroad will, however, be able to opt to have the law of their country of nationality apply to the entirety of their succession. The Commission’s Vice-President Viviane Reding has made a swift agreement on this Regulation a political priority, in view of its importance for EU citizens (see also the EU Citizenship Report 2010, IP/10/1390).

What is expected at this Council? The Commission and the Polish Presidency has worked hard on this proposal and is aiming for a general approach. This could pave the way for a first reading agreement with the European Parliament in the first months of 2012. The UK has made use of its opt out and therefore does not take part in this proposal. “It is very regrettable that the UK has decided not to take part in this initiative,” said EU Commissioner Reding. “This will leave thousands of UK citizens who retire on the shores of Portugal or Spain without legal certainty for the time being. The door will of course always remain open for the UK to join at a later stage. However, in the interest of the citizens of the other EU Member States, it is now time to move on and to complete the deal without the UK, as it is foreseen by the Treaties under such circumstances.”

Commission position: After more than two years of work at technical level, the Commission has, in close cooperation with the Presidency, brokered a political compromise on this file. This political breakthrough is an example of how the EU can work towards creating an area of justice that will ease citizens' daily lives when legal problems arise in cross-border situations.

Background: The rules applicable to international successions are highly complex and difficult to predict under today’s legal situation. The rules governing jurisdiction and the law applicable vary considerably from one Member State to another. This leads to great legal uncertainty and distress for people who want to plan their succession and their heirs, or who may become embroiled in legal and administrative difficulties on inheriting property in another Member State. This is why the Commission has taken the initiative to change this situation by means of a Regulation.

3. Reform of ‘Brussels I’ Regulation – Cutting red tape in cross-border court cases

Just one year ago, the Commission proposed a sweeping reform of the so-called ‘Brussels I’ Regulation of 2001 (see IP/10/1705), a set of EU rules that determine which court has jurisdiction in cross-border cases and how court judgements issued in one EU Member State are recognised and enforced in another EU country.

What is expected at this Council? The Commission and the Polish Presidency aim to reach agreement on abolishing the so-called ‘exequatur’ procedure an intermediate judicial procedure that is expensive and slows down cross-border enforcement. Exequatur is used for getting a judgment in a civil or commercial matter enforced in another EU country.

Commission position: Abolishing exequatur will save up to €47 million a year and give a boost to EU companies – especially small and medium-sized firms – during the economic crisis. The reform proposal will strengthen the Single Market, cut red tape and boost economic growth. In a single EU area of justice, court judgements flow easily across borders will make life easier for citizens and businesses. They should not be burdened with pointless and costly formalities.

Background: The Brussels I Regulation facilitates civil judicial cooperation in the EU by identifying the most appropriate jurisdiction for solving a cross-border dispute and ensuring the smooth recognition and enforcement of judgements issued in another Member State. This helps the Single Market function properly. The European Council has called for the abolition of exequatur since 1999! The reform proposed by the Commission in December 2010 will foster the free circulation of judgements. With the abolition of exequatur, any judgement in any Member State will be recognised in any other Member State. On average, the exequatur costs a company or individual around €2,000 in a straightforward case in the EU, ranging from €1,100 in Bulgaria to €3,800 in Italy. For more complex cases, the costs can reach €12,700. It could also take several months in some countries to have a judgement recognised and enforced. In the future, judgements in civil and commercial matters rendered by a court in one Member States will thus be automatically enforceable across the EU (while allowing courts to stop execution of the judgment under exceptional circumstances). The Lisbon Treaty now allows us to give full faith and credit to judgements in civil and commercial matters from all 27 EU Member States.

4. The optional Common European Sales Law

On 11 October, the Commission proposed an optional Common European Sales Law to help break down barriers to cross-border trade in the Single Market and give consumers more choice and a high level of protection (IP/11/1175). It will facilitate trade by offering a single set of rules for cross-border contracts in all 27 EU countries.

What is expected at this Council? The Presidency will update ministers on the state-of-play, following a stakeholder conference organised on the matter in Warsaw in November.

Commission position: The optional Common European Sales Law will help break down barriers for cross-border transactions, notably online. The Common European Sakes Law will not be compulsory, but can be chosen by traders and consumers for the cross-border sale of goods and related services. It will not change national civil codes and contract laws, but insert into each national law a ‘second regime’ of contract law for cross-border transactions.

Background: Despite the success of the EU's Single Market, barriers to cross-border trade remain. Many of these result from divergent sales laws between the 27 Member States. They can make selling abroad complicated and costly, especially for small firms. In economic terms, at least €26 billion in trade is lost because companies are not selling cross border. In June 2011, the European Parliament had called for such an optional contract law regime in a resolution voted with a 4/5 majority (see IP/11/683).

5. Ensuring fair trial rights in the EU – Access to a lawyer

On 8 June, the Commission adopted a proposal to guarantee the right to speak with a lawyer from the moment a suspect is held by police until the conclusion of proceedings (IP/11/689). Under the new proposal, suspects will also be able to talk to a family member or an employer and inform them of their arrest. If they are outside of their country, they would have the right to contact their country’s consulate.

What is expected at this Council? The Polish Presidency will report on the state of play. Work on the proposals will continue at technical level and now pass to the incoming Danish Presidency.

Commission position: Access to a lawyer rights are essential for building confidence in the EU’s single area of justice, especially when suspects are arrested as a result of a European Arrest Warrant. This proposal is the third in a series to guarantee minimum rights to a fair trial anywhere in the EU. These measures aim to establish clear rights across the EU and safeguard people's fundamental rights to a fair trial and the right to defence.

Background: The Commission has been committed to establishing common EU standards in relation to criminal proceedings for many years and has taken a step-by-step approach on EU legislation. These measures will allow the Commission to develop a truly common and ambitious EU framework for fair trial rights. Justice Ministers approved the first such measure – the right to translation and interpretation – in 2010 (see IP/10/1305). The European Parliament today approved the second measure the right to information in criminal proceedings. The Commission proposed the measure in July 2010 (see IP/10/989). Under the proposal, suspects in the EU will soon receive a ‘letter of rights’ listing their basic rights during criminal proceedings. Following the Parliament's endorsement, the measure will now pass to ministers for final adoption by the Council in the coming weeks before becoming law.

6. European Investigation Order

On 21 May 2010, seven EU Member States (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden) put forward an initiative for a European Investigation Order – a system that would ease justice authorities' work in obtaining evidence for transnational criminal proceedings (or investigations). The United Kingdom has said it wants to participate in the proposed Directive. The proposal would allow authorities to request their counterparts investigate, share and gather evidence.

What is expected at this Council? The Polish Presidency aims to reach a general approach on the text.

Commission position: The Commission noted in a report on 24 August 2010 (see IP/10/1067) that the proposal for a simpler, unified system could have advantages if it were backed by appropriate procedural and fundamental rights standards.

The Commission will continue to follow the negotiations closely. Any new instrument on evidence should offer added value, go beyond the achievements of the current fragmented legislative regime (Conventions on Mutual Assistance 1959 and 2000, European Evidence Warrant of 2008), and comply with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Background: The initiative aims at providing a comprehensive and improved system for gathering of evidence in criminal matters based on the principle of mutual recognition.

7. Making access to justice easier – The European e-Justice Portal

On 16 July 2010, the first version of the European e-Justice Portal went live – to date it has had around 500,000 visitors from more than 160 countries. The Commission is committed to further evolving e-Justice as a key underpinning component of justice in the modern world to the benefit of citizens, businesses, the judiciary and legal practitioners.

What is expected at this Council? Ministers will take note of the latest developments in the European e-Justice portal.

Commission position: The European e-Justice Portal now offers more practical and user-friendly features for citizens and legal practitioners and business. The latest update to the portal is an important step towards easier, better and more efficient access to justice.

Background: The major highlights of the new version of the European e-Justice portal are:

  • A newly designed modern look

  • A clearer navigation which makes content more easily accessible with a single click – users will be able to see all possible options by only rolling the mouse over any of the headlines

  • New dynamic forms allowing users to complete the European Small Claims procedure forms, including a new tool to guide users to the right procedure

  • A more powerful search service

  • Easier access for users with visual impairments through the implementation of an audio verification security measure (CAPTCHA) in all 22 EU official languages

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