The government has failed to make a convincing case for opting out of the European arrest warrant (EAW) and around 130 other EU police and criminal justice measures in the Lisbon Treaty, the House of Lords EU committee says today.
The government has to decide by 31 May 2014 whether or not the UK should continue to be bound by around 130 measures enacted before the Lisbon Treaty came into force in December 2009. If the government does not opt out, on 1 December 2014 these measures will become subject to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union and the enforcement powers of the European Commission. If the government exercises its block opt-out, the UK may then apply to opt back in to individual measures.
However, it is unclear how long opting back will take and what impact any delay might have upon access to justice.
The committee’s report criticises the government for failing to engage with parliament, the devolved administrations and key stakeholders during the decision-making process. It says promised consultations with parliament have been repeatedly delayed.
The committee reports that the majority of witnesses considered the arrest warrant to be the most important of the justice measures.
The witnesses said that it had led to ‘the creation of a more efficient, simpler, quicker, cheaper, more reliable and less political system of extradition, which allowed for the return of those wanted for trial in the UK as well as allowing dangerous criminals to be extradited to other member states’.
In 2011 some 93% of individuals surrendered by the UK were foreign nationals.
Lord Bowness, chair of the Justice, Institutions and Consumer Protection EU sub-committee said: ‘While it would be theoretically possible for the UK to continue cooperating with other member states through alternative arrangements to the EU measures covered by the opt-out, we found that these would raise legal complications and result in more cumbersome, expensive and less effective procedures, thus weakening the hand of the UK’s police and law enforcement authorities.
‘The negotiation of any new arrangements would also be a time-consuming and uncertain process. The most effective way for the UK to cooperate with other member states is to remain engaged in existing EU measures in this area.’
Lord Hannay, chair of the Home Affairs, Health and Education sub-committee, said: ‘Cross-border cooperation on policing and criminal justice matters is an essential element in tackling security threats such as terrorism and organised crime in the 21st century and we need to ensure that the UK police and law enforcement agencies continue to have the tools they need to counter these increasing threats.’
The Law Society said the committee’s report reflects its stance that the case for exercising the opt-out has not been made and highlights that none of the measures are harmful to the UK justice or common law systems.
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: ‘We are delighted that the select committee recognised the significant concerns of solicitors about the practical impact of the opt-out. This was a rigorous and detailed inquiry and we support its conclusion that the exercise of the opt-out is not justified and could have significant negative implications for the administration of justice in the UK.’
Maura McGowan QC, Bar Council chair, is currently leading a bar delegation to Brussels to meet with senior EU officials to explain the impact of the proposed opt-out, as well as addressing a European Parliament hearing on reforming the Court of Justice.
She said: ‘We welcome the finding of the House of Lords EU Committee that the government has not made its case on the opt-out and not engaged sufficiently with stakeholders. We will continue to press that view in Brussels and Westminster.
‘The opt-out will affect dozens of measures which are widely recognised as fundamental, which the UK would need to opt straight back in to.
‘Some of these measures are critical to the UK's role in the international fight against terrorism and organised crime, the sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking, and the rapid extradition of criminals from our shores to face trial in other EU member states, to name but a few.
‘It is unclear how, and indeed if, it will be possible to opt back in to all of the essential measures. What is clear however is that significant costs will be incurred as a result, and the route to justice will be severely affected.
‘Opting out of pre-existing EU criminal justice measures will act to undo much of the good work which was undertaken to set up the system as it is today, which works in the public interest, both domestically and internationally.’