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Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
Moving Justice centre-stage
Plenary session of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE)
Luxembourg, 21 May 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure for me to be taking part in your plenary this morning.
I am conscious that I am the first Commissioner with dedicated responsibilities for the Justice portfolio. That brings with it the need to understand the concerns of the legal profession. In that respect, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe is a most valued organisation, bringing together Europe's different legal professions to promote law and justice. Your members are working on the front-line of the day-to-day delivery of justice, working both with Europe's citizens and with Europe's businesses. Your insights, and concerns, are therefore invaluable to me in my work to give flesh and substance to core principles like "access to justice" and "mutual recognition" which lie at the heart of the Commission's agenda for the coming years.
I do not forget also the important role that the legal profession has played in the development of the European Union, a construction built entirely on the rule of law. Without the contribution of your members, seeking to assert the rights of their clients, the European Union would most certainly be a very different entity, far removed from its citizens and businesses.
The entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty gives us now a very special opportunity to shape the area of justice in a way that is responsive to the real needs of those using it. The Lisbon Treaty moved the Justice agenda centre-stage.
Your conference programme reflects the importance of reform in the area of civil justice. The aim of this reform process is twofold: firstly, it will help Europe recover from the economic and financial crisis. Secondly, new proposals on civil justice adapt our legal systems to a changing reality in our societies. 12 million European citizens live in a Member State other than their own, growing numbers of citizens live in a bi-national marriage or partnership, some people own a holiday home abroad, and a number of Member States have introduced registered partnerships while others have not done so. People shop across borders, both on- and offline, or they inherit property in another Member State than the one they live in. There are many situations in the life of a European that can get terribly complicated because it is unclear which law applies if something goes wrong or if the civil status of a person changes. This is not only a challenge for citizens but also for businesses.
Justice for growth
With our upcoming measures in the area of contract law, debt recovery or the recent proposal on the cross-border recognition of judgments in commercial matters (Brussels I) we want to make it easier to do business in the Single Market. We call it Justice for Growth.
We must play our part in the justice area to lighten the regulatory burden, give legal certainty to companies, and to protect consumers. All of this will speed up the exit from the financial and economic crisis, and will enable both consumers and businesses to make use of the opportunities the Single Market offers.
Take for example the revision of the Brussels I Regulation, aimed at removing extra costs and legal uncertainty faced by citizens and businesses.
The major reform we are proposing is the abolition of the "exequatur" procedure for the cross-border recognition of judgments in civil and commercial matters. On an EU average, exequatur costs € 2.200 in a straightforward case, and at up to 12 months it can be lengthy, too. Exequatur is thus in most cases an unnecessary, yet expensive formality.
The Brussels I reform will also benefit international litigation. We are proposing changes aimed at an efficient protection of the choice of court and arbitration agreements in the Union.
We know that the overwhelming majority of EU businesses involved in cross-border trade make use of choice of court agreements. The evaluation of the Regulation had shown that such agreements can be circumvented too easily under current rules and that this creates unnecessary litigation, thus triggering costs and delays for businesses. The changes we are proposing will enhance the effectiveness of such agreements and will better ensure respect for party autonomy.
Similarly, we are proposing changes to strengthen the effect of arbitration agreements in Europe. Our studies have shown that parties can effectively obstruct arbitration agreements by shopping around in Europe trying to get the agreement declared invalid. This creates again unnecessary litigation, leading to extra costs and delays. As a result of the proposed changes, the risk for parallel proceedings will be removed, abusive litigation tactics will be countered and no irreconcilable decisions will circulate in Europe.
Another important initiative will be on cross border debt recovery. I will present in July a legislative proposal to facilitate cross-border debt recovery through better enforcement. It will be a new self-standing European procedure available to citizens and companies in addition to existing national procedures.
The aim is to enable a creditor to preserve, as security for the debt owed, money held by his debtor in one or several bank accounts within the territory of the European Union. The proposal will contribute to the recovery of a proportion of bad debt, to the reduction of cost and to simplification in judicial proceedings. It will bring legal certainty to cross-border trade and inspire confidence and payment morale.
Let me turn to the recent initiatives on family law, important elements of justice for citizens.
In March, the Commission adopted two proposals on matrimonial property regimes and on property consequences of registered partnerships. It was high time the EU acted because there are more and more couples living in a Member State of which they do not have nationality, or they acquire property in another Member State than the one they live in.
In total, there are around 16 million such international couples across the EU. Of 2.4 million marriages celebrated in the EU in 2007, about 300 000 involved more than one nationality. Around one fifth of registered partnerships in the EU has an international dimension.
The two proposals aim to provide clear rules for international couples and offer legal certainty as regards their property rights, in particular when the couple splits by divorce, separation or when one of the members of the couple dies. The proposals do not intervene in any way into the recognition or legal definition of the institutions concerned.
The proposals are a logical step forward, implementing the principle of mutual recognition in the family law area. They sit alongside the long-standing Brussels IIa Regulation on the jurisdiction and recognition of decisions in matrimonial matters. I also proposed the first measure of enhanced cooperation which provides rules to determine the applicable divorce law. This enabled a breakthrough in the form of the Rome III Regulation, adopted last December. Finally, we have also the proposal on successions under the negotiations that is relevant for the situations of dissolving a marriage or partnership.
All these measures have one thing in common: they seek to simplify the lives of citizens in cross-border situations. The last thing anyone needs in one of these difficult moments is to be faced with unnecessarily complex legal questions.
I will now turn to criminal law, an area which also features prominently on your conference agenda.
First of all, I would like to thank the Council of the Bars and Law Societies for the close and fruitful cooperation on procedural rights going back 10 years. And I remember with fondness addressing the 50th anniversary of the CCBE last November and see for myself that, like me, you are pleased with the progress we have made on procedural rights. A first directive on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings was adopted last October. We are well on our way to the adoption of the second item on the procedural rights Roadmap, a Directive on the right to information in criminal proceedings. This means that the information on rights will be given in writing, in a "Letter of Rights" and includes, of course, the fact that they are entitled to a lawyer. Our research shows that in half of the Member States, in 50% of cases, the accused person does not have a lawyer. Is this because they don't know their rights? Surely this plays a part. The Letter of Rights will make sure that everyone knows they are entitled to a lawyer. The second part of the draft Directive, on access to information about the charge, was something that lawyers in the CCBE have been advocating for many years. I know that the CCBE will be particularly interested in the Directive on access to a lawyer, which I will be proposing next month. You, and your members, have made recommendations to the Commission as to the content of the proposal. Your expert guidance has been much appreciated.
European Arrest Warrant
The Commission has recently reported on the implementation of the European Arrest Warrant system which has now been operational for over seven years. Our report provides an opportunity to take stock of both its successes and shortcomings. There is general agreement that Europe needs a robust and effective extradition system to ensure serious cross-border crime is prosecuted and punished with minimum delay. I am of the view that the European arrest warrant has provided such a system successfully. However, we should also flag up some of the system's shortcomings and take into consideration the fact that the Commission has been listening to stakeholders such as the CCBE, whose members have valuable experience of the system in practice.
Improvement of the European arrest warrant system is directly linked to continuing to build mutual trust in Member States' judicial systems, without which judicial co-operation cannot work. Arrest warrant issues have therefore informed the Commission’s ongoing work on the procedural rights of suspected or accused persons in criminal proceedings.
This is why the Commission calls for a proportionality check to be applied in the state issuing the arrest warrant taking into account such issues as the seriousness of the offence, the length of the sentence, and a cost/benefit analysis of the execution of the warrant, This is an issue I will keep under review and re-visit in accordance with the evidence, including that provided by interested parties such as the CCBE. I hope I can count on your expertise for the continued improvement of the European Arrest Warrant.
Victims of Crime
I have already spoken of the rights of the defence but as you know every crime has a victim and every victim must have a voice and central role. That is why we are also taking action to strengthen the rights of victims of crime.
I have a simple vision – that victims are recognised, that their role in the criminal justice system is recognised, that their suffering is recognised and that their needs are met – they should be at the heart of the criminal justice system. It is odd that victims of crime are so peripheral to the system that seeks to defend them.
This means changing cultures and attitudes – our justice systems have not been designed with the victim in mind – they have been focussed on prosecuting the offender and defending society.
This approach is reflected in the treatment of victims. The European Union has in the past taken action in this area through the 2001 Council Framework Decision on the standing of victims. As a result Member States have acted to varying degrees. But at the end of the day, across the EU, people who have fallen victim to crime – up to 75 million every year, not to mention their families – are not having their needs met.
This is why I presented on 18 May a Directive establishing minimum standards for victims and a Regulation to ensure the protection they benefit from is not lost when they move abroad.
We must ensure that victims are better recognised and treated with respect and dignity. We must ensure they are better protected from intimidation, repeat victimisation and secondary victimisation during proceedings. Victims will have better access to quality support and better access to justice both in a formal setting and through mediation and other forms of restorative justice.
Importantly, our action respects the right of the defence to a fair trial. Raising standards for victims will enable fairer justice across Europe without lowering the rights of the defence.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have given you an overview of the most important initiatives this year, which will help us accelerating Europe's exit from the economic and financial crisis, advance procedural rights, and build a comprehensive area of justice for our citizens and businesses. I know that I can count on your continued support and expertise to take this agenda forward. The Treaty of Lisbon has put Justice centre-stage. With your support we will ensure that the Justice agenda comes of age.