Lawyers are invited to engage with the European Commission’s justice priority plans for the next five years.
In a week that the lord chancellor made it clear that he wants no more European justice, the European Commission is going over his head and asking directly for your help. It is planning its justice priorities for the next five years, starting with a conference in Brussels on 21 and 22 November 2013.
To aid the debate, the Commission has published five discussion papers, for comments. I shall give you a simplified and highly personal guide to them (these are my own views, and not those of the organisation for which I work, which has not yet discussed them). The papers cover: fundamental rights, rule of law, administrative law and national administrations, and civil and criminal law.
Three of the discussion papers are the usual bla-bla. These papers are: fundamental rights (which is a brief history of the success of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights); rule of law (which contains another version of Commissioner Reding’s bid for a treaty change to enable the Commission to deal with rule of law issues in the member states – see here for a recent account of it); and administrative law and national administrations (I fell asleep reading it). Each concludes with very general questions along the lines of ‘what would you like the Commission to do in this field?’.
The two interesting papers cover civil and criminal law. First, they summarise the progress made over recent years, which is considerable, and then outline likely areas for the future.
The criminal paper describes a solid body of achievement. There are now common definitions (and sanctions) for crimes like currency counterfeiting, terrorist offences, racism and xenophobia, child exploitation, cybercrime, human and drug trafficking. There are also common standards to protect people suspected or accused of crime, and common standards for victims. There is mutual recognition of various judicial decisions, of which the most far-reaching is the European Arrest Warrant.
Under current discussion is an anti-fraud Directive and a proposal on a European Public Prosecutor’s Office to tackle fraud against the EU’s financial interests (a particular bugbear for the lord chancellor). Finally, EU-level institutions have been established to support the fight against crime: Eurojust, the European Judicial Network, and the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS).
But the paper gives only a few pointers for the future. It floats the idea of the creation of victim funds composed of confiscated criminal assets; also, mediation and restorative justice. At least, the paper doesn’t forget lawyers: ‘Practitioners need to work together, exchange information in a fast and secure way, and obtain assistance from their colleagues through efficient tools. Whereas mechanisms already exist in the Union… they are not always easily accessible for practitioners… or simple to use.’
The civil law paper is the most impressive, with a long list of achievements, and, more importantly, various ideas for the future. There are cross-border rules now in place for product liability, late payment, and intellectual property rights. Consumers can also now rely on EU rules when going on holiday, receiving pre-contractual information, or when a product is faulty.
In cross-border cases, EU citizens and companies in principle now know to which court to go, which law that court will apply, and that its judgment will be recognised and enforced in all member states. EU law provides rules for cross-border custody disputes and for a child abducted by a parent. Maintenance creditors are able to obtain an enforcement order easily, enabling payment of the amounts due across borders.
For the future, the following is proposed (in fact, work on some of it has begun): resolving disparities between national insolvency laws; establishing a specific legal framework for cloud computing; preparing a single set of insurance contract law rules; resolving divergences in the service of documents; agreeing minimum standards as to when and how a child should be heard, and how the child may be represented in court; minimum procedural standards at European level for temporary freezing of assets and transparency of debtor’s assets; the interconnection of registers of wills and insolvency proceedings; and the creation of electronic registers of European Certificates of Succession.
Again, lawyers have not been forgotten: ‘The actual users of the law are essential to ensuring the correct application of European civil law in day-to-day life. Therefore, the EU should empower those actors by raising their awareness and familiarising them with the existing law.’
If you want to inform the debate at the November conference with your exciting plans for the future (Chris Grayling clones welcome), the Commission needs to receive your views by 11 November. You are encouraged to attend, too. In any case, you have until the end of 2013 to send your contribution.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs