European Union laws setting minimum rights for defendants and victims are in the interests of British citizens, but the government was right not to sign up to a Lisbon treaty proposal guaranteeing suspects access to a lawyer, a committee of peers has said.
The Lords Justice and Institutions EU sub-committee reported this week: ‘There are legitimate concerns that EU citizens who find themselves involved in the criminal justice system of another member state, either as defendants or victims of crime, are disadvantaged.’
British citizens, who are ‘accustomed to high standards of legal protection at home’, may find themselves with fewer rights than they would expect in their own country, the report says.
The report follows the committee’s enquiry into the growing body of EU criminal justice legislation and its likely effect on British citizens, during which it heard evidence from the Law Society and the Bar Council.
It found: ‘There is a widespread perception that the development of cross-border law enforcement measures has not been matched by balancing measures to ensure the rights of those defendants and victims involved.’
To date, it said, the EU legislative effort has prioritised law enforcement, with a focus on facilitating mutual recognition - so that decisions made by the judicial authorities of member states are given effect by the judicial authorities of another.
The committee welcomed the 2009 Lisbon treaty, which put in place ‘road maps’ of planned legislation to secure defendants and victims rights,
It says such road maps are the best way to protect British people from possible legal problems abroad and recommends that the government take a positive approach to opting in to such EU legislation.
However, it accepts that there are problems in incorporating the rules into the UK’s criminal law systems and agrees with the government that the proposal for access to a lawyer in the current road map proposal would be ‘too disruptive for the UK criminal justice systems’, supporting its decision not to opt in.
But the committee hopes the outcome of the negotiations on the directive would be legislation that the UK could opt in to. It concludes that the government should continue to look favourably in principle at opting in to further road map legislation, bearing in mind particularly the influence that the UK can have in raising standards across the EU.
But it recommends that, before the European Commission expands its criminal justice policy, the road map legislation should be put in place and its impact assessed.
Committee chair Lord Bowness said: ‘Significant EU law enforcement legislation such as the European arrest warrant now needs to be complemented by measures protecting European citizens.
‘By establishing minimum legal rights for both defendants and victims, regardless of which EU member state they are from, we can ensure that British citizens are guaranteed a high level of care and protection, regardless of where they might find themselves in trouble,’ he said.
‘However, we recognise that EU legislation could easily cause significant problems as member states have such diverse national laws. To protect against this, we recommend that the minimum rights set at EU level should be firmly grounded in the European Court of Human Rights and other international law norms.’
A Law Society spokeswoman said the Society supports the principle of improving procedural rights provision in criminal proceedings across the EU and supports the current initiative for a directive on the right of access to a lawyer.
Head of policy at Fair Trials International Catherine Heard, said: ‘We are delighted that this report sees a clear need for safeguards to be built into EU law for basic rights like access to an interpreter and a lawyer, which are fundamental to a fair trial but are sadly under-protected in many EU countries.
‘This report echoes what Fair Trials International has been saying for years - prosecution measures like the European arrest warrant have been prioritised, at the expense of these crucial defence rights.’
She added ‘The UK must work with its EU partners to get these safeguards right, or more cases of injustice will follow.’