Here is the first pantomime of the season. The scene opens in Strasbourg, where giants live: the European Court of Human Rights, and the Council of Europe, among others. Baron Hard-Up (otherwise known as the French government) owns their forest habitat, and has made it as difficult as possible to reach them by land or air.
The giants are gentle and good, and so making the journey through the brambles and branches is worthwhile. If you do, you will find nestling in the arms of the Council of Europe one of her infants, whom she calls CEPEJ (giant-speak for the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice). CEPEJ is holding a brand new book, entitled European Judicial Systems Edition 2012 - Efficiency and Quality of Justice. This is the book which I want to speak about this week. For those who prefer easy reads, I recommend the overview as a starting point.
You might wonder whether it is sensible to publish a book which compares the various legal systems of Europe for their efficiency and quality. Are they similar enough to compare, particularly since Council of Europe membership goes wider than that of the EU? CEPEJ is aware of the problems, and says at the beginning: ‘Comparing quantitative figures from different states or entities, with different geographical, economic, and judicial situations is a difficult task which must be addressed cautiously... it is in particular necessary to highlight the specificities which explain variations from one state to another (level of wealth, different judicial structures, data collection)... Only a careful reading of the report and a rigorous comparison of data can make it possible to draw analyses and conclusions. Figures cannot be passively taken one after the other, but must be interpreted in the light of the methodological notes and comments.’
With that in mind, and throwing some of the caution to the winds, I shall highlight three of the more interesting outcomes. For instance, what is most relevant regarding the UK? I rely on you the audience to shout ‘He’s behind you!’ if the big, bad UK government creeps up to listen to this speech (since I have no intention of undermining the case for more and better legal aid).
But the legal aid data is fascinating. First – and please bear in mind that the data in this report come from 2010 – the report states that ‘the global legal aid budgets increased in average by 18% between 2008 and 2010 in Europe’. Well fancy that! Second, the UK (England and Wales) has the distinction of having the highest average legal aid payment per case - €3,551. The Netherlands, though, is higher on the number of cases granted legal aid per 100,000 inhabitants (3,074 compared to England and Wales’ 1,296).
Second, there are court fees. These are rising in amount. For a majority of states, court taxes and fees constitute significant income, allowing some to cover a major part of court operating costs. But there is one state which makes a profit out of them – Austria. The UK is somewhere in the middle of the table.
Finally, I was surprised to see that video-conferencing in criminal cases is so widespread. Almost 80% of the Council of Europe’s membership uses it. For civil and commercial cases, the percentage is much lower, just over a half of the states.
The report is full of little gems. (How about this one: ‘Generally speaking, citizens seem to be more litigious in central and eastern European states and southern European states than in northern Europe and the Caucasus states.’) Read it for yourself! Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of a European…
STOP PRESS Christmas is cancelled! The pantomime has just turned into a horror story. One of the gentle giants of Strasbourg has eaten a lawyer live on stage. I have written before about the Michaud case (12323/11), which raised the question of whether a lawyer’s duty to report suspicious transactions under the money laundering legislation breaches the European Convention of Human Rights, in particular Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life).
Well, the court this week – while strongly supporting lawyer-client confidentiality, and taking into account the specific circumstances of the French legislation (which, for instance, requires lawyer reporting to go through the president of the bar) – has ruled that there is no breach of the convention. It is not all bad news, since it should be possible to use the court’s interpretation of the circumstances when professional secrecy may be breached - its emphasis, for example, on proportionality - to guard against further inroads in the future. My organisation, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), is still considering the implications of the judgement and has come to no firm conclusions about it yet.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs