Viviane Reding, Europe’s justice commissioner, says she wants the debate on the EU's role in justice to be ‘open and transparent’. She told last week's Assises de la Justice (Foundations of Justice) conference in Brussels that: 'For me it is clear that this European Area of Justice we are in the process of creating needs to be grounded in trust – mutual trust between those making and applying the law, and trust in the system by those who use it: citizens and businesses.'
That's very welcome, though unlikely to impress the lord chancellor, who has firmly set itself against the programme and its ambitions for an EU minister for justice.
However if Reding is serious about transparency she should have a word with her spin doctors. A press release issued for last week's conference backs up the need for an justice programme with figures from Eurobarometer, an arm of the European Commission which, since 1973 has taken soundings on public attitudes. The Eurobarometer survey Justice in the EU is solid stuff: 26,581 people were interviewed in the EU's 28 member states.
However its conclusions are far from underlining the need for an EU justice area.
As presented in the press release, you would think that the public are heavily on side. The headline figure, picked out in bold, is that 'only 22% of respondents think that national justice systems should be an exclusive matter for member states'. What it does not say - until you wade into the annexe, is that only one-third of that figure think it should *not* be.
The full figures, based on answers to the question, 'Do you agree or disagree that the functioning of national judicial systems is exclusively a matter for member states,' are 22% strongly agree and 44% tended to agree. Only 7% strongly disagreed while 18% tended to disagree. I make that 66% broadly against the EU having a role and 25% being in favour (the remaining 9% were don't knows).
The UK's figure, 23%, was close to the European average. The countries where respondents were most likely to favour an EU role were Poland, Italy and Portugal, whereas Cyprus, Greece and Estonia were most determined that the functioning of national judicial systems remain a matter for member states.
The survey also found that a majority of Europeans - 53% - trust their national justice system, though the level of trust varies widely between Finland (85%) and Slovenia (24%). The UK does better than the mean, with 61%, placing it eighth.
The UK scored relatively well in measures such as 'the state acts in accordance with the law' (68%, against an EU average of 56%). However only 24% of Britons felt informed about the cost of legal proceedings, against an EU average of 25% (given the current uncertainty over the implementation of Jackson reforms, the UK figure may be generous). One question on which the UK topped the league was on satisfaction with the length of proceedings, which 40% of Britons, equalled only by Luxembourg, rated as good.
Remarkably, the UK comes fourth from top in the use of new technologies by criminal courts: 61% of Britons rate it as good, compared with an EU average of 28%.
Overall, a disinterested reader might think the poll findings a boost for Chris Grayling's 'keep off' policy, but you won't find that in the Assises de la Justice bumph.
Of course on matters as arcane as the machinery of judicial systems there is no shame in the commission being ahead of public opinion. However, an open and transparent process would admit that is where Viviane Reding is at the moment.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor