Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
Access to Justice – A Necessity in Times of Fiscal Consolidation
40th Conference of the European Bars and Law Societies
Vienna, 17 February 2012
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to be here today in this splendid palace. The sober neo-classicist façade of the Palais Pallavicini belies the interior's grandeur. And this grandeur contrasts somewhat with the subject of today's conference.
We are living in a time of fiscal consolidation – from Athens to Dublin, from Riga to Lisbon, from Paris to Vienna. We all have to do some homework for the next generation. The Member States of the European Union are reducing public debt. This is not a question of ideology. They are doing it out of pure necessity. The sovereign debt crisis has triggered a common European understanding that our public finances are sick and in need of recovery at the moment.
This affects some of our Member States more than others. The defining issue is that if we do not address this sickness urgently and with determination, the price will be paid by our children and grandchildren. We can only preserve the European model of society for the coming generations if we take responsible action now.
Fiscal consolidation is a policy of responsibility. It must not be confused with the ill-judged policies of austerity that plagued the 1930s. In our European social market economy, public finances and the state will continue to play a strong role in the economy and for our social security systems. In addition, our Member States are operating today in an internal market with a single currency. This is why common European efforts to stabilise public finances will put us on track to strengthen all the Member States of our Union.
Strong well-functioning countries need strong, well-functioning legal systems. That's why measures to achieve fiscal consolidation cannot come at the price of undermining the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession.
While the focus today must be on the stabilisation of our economies and public finances, let us never forget that we are doing all this for the sake of our citizens. In order to put the citizen back in the centre of attention, the European Union has declared that 2013 will be the European Year of Citizens. It is time to ensure that we do not only stabilise banks, financial markets and the budgets of ministries, but that we also win the hearts, minds and confidence of our citizens for the reform process and for the future development of our continent.
As EU Justice Commissioner, I would like to share some thoughts with you on how we can preserve the essential rights of citizens and help businesses cope with the demand of fiscal consolidation.
Access to justice is more than a right, it is a major achievement of democratic societies. A well-functioning judiciary, providing effective access to justice without delays and backlogs of cases, is essential to any society and modern economy. Effective access to justice is also the basis for citizen's trust in the judiciary. And without this trust our democracies cannot function.
In this context, procedural rights are not a luxury that can be cast aside when money is tight. The set of procedural rights that we are establishing in Europe is the foundation on which mutual trust between Europe's judicial systems is built.
I see myself as a bridge builder. Our different judicial systems cannot be swept away. Instead, we have to build bridges between these systems so they can function together.
Judicial cooperation takes place by way of mutual recognition. For that to work properly there has to be mutual trust.
And mutual trust cannot be imposed by decree. It has to grow out of confidence that each Member State has a criminal justice system that guarantees fair trials.
Fair trial rights mean ensuring that an accused person has an interpreter if he doesn't understand the language, is informed about his rights and has access to a lawyer – even if he or she can't afford to pay for one. That might sound self evident. Unfortunately it is not in all Member States. I would like it to become normal in the future.
That is why I have taken action to achieve a full set of procedural rights and establish a solid common level playing field throughout the European judicial area. The European Parliament and EU justice ministers have been very supportive. Some of the measures have already been adopted, such as the Directive on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings. Some more are close to agreement, like the Directive on access to a lawyer. We are currently looking into supplementary measures, notably the protection of vulnerable suspects such as children.
I am pursuing a similar action on victims' rights. Throughout the EU, about 75 million people are victims of crime every year. While our criminal justice systems focus on catching criminals, they sometimes end up neglecting victims. That is why providing minimum standards for victims of crime everywhere in Europe is needed to strengthen citizens' confidence in the justice systems. This is not an optional extra. This is the basis for our society to function well. I have put forward legislative proposals to ensure that everywhere in Europe, victims' needs are recognised and victims are treated with respect and sensitivity.
But access to justice not only matters in criminal law. In any cross-border case, including in civil matters, access to justice often is more difficult for the plaintiff or the accused than in a domestic setting. It is also more difficult for companies when they do business cross-border.
How can we deal with the challenge of ensuring access to justice, maintaining a high level of quality in the delivery of justice services, and keeping costs low at the same time?
We are working on several European initiatives that reconcile two ambitions: the need to look at alternative methods and tools to make justice more citizen-friendly, and the need to keep costs in check without diminishing standards.
But access to justice is not limited to access to courts. In fact, a range of disputes can be resolved without ever reaching the stage of judicial proceedings by resorting to Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). Alternative ways of resolving disputes can avoid unnecessary litigation at the taxpayers' expense. Alternative methods can provide better and faster solutions than going to court and are often more suitable for resolving a conflict.
The Mediation Directive of 2008 introduces ways to favour the amicable settlement of cross-border disputes in civil and commercial matters and encourages judges to promote recourse to mediation. Mediation is a viable option for "first resort", for example in family matters.
Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms save time and money. I will promote these alternative approaches in our justice policy.
Another example is the European Small Claims Procedure. This procedure ensures effective access to justice for those with a claim in a cross-border civil and commercial case under €2,000. Let me also mention the Commission's proposal to recast the important Brussels I Regulation on jurisdiction, recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters. At present, much time, effort and money, around – €2,000 per case – is wasted on the formality of exequatur. In most cases, it is "red tape", pure and simple. Let's get rid of red tape and concentrate on those cases that bring real benefits. If we want to save money, without undermining access to justice, we can make a good start here.
Let me also mention the proposal for a European account preservation order to facilitate cross-border debt recovery. Currently, 60% of cross-border debt is not recovered. This is a €600 million cost a year to businesses and not an encouragement to cross-border trade.
Or take the Insolvency Regulation of 2000 that we will adapt to the current economic context. If a company is in trouble financially it should get help to survive and preserve jobs, instead of being forced to liquidate. Let me mention e-Justice, which allows any court in the Union to have access to insolvency registers in other Member States. We will also improve the mechanisms for transparency and creditor participation. I would like to put on the table a modern insolvency law helps good companies to survive, it encourages entrepreneurs to take risks and it affects positively the terms on which lenders will lend. A modern insolvency law is essential for financial stability and efficiency of the financial system. It has an impact on growth, investment and legal certainty for businesses in the internal market.
This became very clear in a recent complaint brought by a European company in Latvia to the European Commission. This specific case highlights the challenges that uncertainties surrounding the operation of an insolvency law system can pose on companies that wish to make use of our internal market. Following swift and determined intervention by the European Commission, we are working closely with the Latvian authorities to ensure that these uncertainties are removed.
These were just a few examples and there are even more: I recently proposed a common sales law that will save companies costs when they want to enter a new market. Just last month I put forward a modernisation of the EU data protection rules that will reduce legal fragmentation and save businesses around €2.3 billion per year.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
My message is simple: times of fiscal consolidation are by definition times of hard choices. We should eliminate red tape while protecting our hard-won rights. This makes good sense and avoids putting in danger basic standards of justice. I have just outlined a few concrete case in which justice can help the economy and where an efficient judiciary can contribute to savings and growth.
In these times of crisis, let us get it right.