Sarah speaks to European Parliament about new EU law on language rights in criminal proceedings

June 16, 2010 11:39 AM

Sarah Ludford, rapporteur. − Madam President, it has been recognised by most of us for over a decade that the EU needed to act to strengthen the rights of suspects and defendants throughout the Union and to give safeguards necessary to ensure fair trials. This is in the context of much tighter cooperation on policing and prosecution, the introduction of the European arrest warrant and the fact that many EU citizens take advantage of free movement rights and may have a brush with the law in an unfamiliar environment.

There was an attempt at a comprehensive measure on so-called procedural guarantees, one that MEPs strongly supported, but that ran up against a brick wall in the Council in 2007.

I was delighted that last year the Commission (and I am delighted to see Vice-President Reding here for this debate), supported by the Swedish Presidency, revived the matter in the form of a road map of half a dozen individual measures. This is the first to see the light of day. This directive says that, if you become a suspect or you are arrested, questioned or put on trial and you do not understand the language of the country, you have a right to interpretation and translation, under certain conditions, for police questioning, hearings, meetings with your lawyer and so on. Broadly speaking, you have to be put in the same position as a local.

The basis of cooperation between Member States in criminal justice is mutual recognition, the almost automatic recognition of the decisions of courts in other EU countries based on mutual trust, but it is not sensible just to assume that trust exists. It has to be earned through full respect by all EU countries of certain standards of justice and fair trial.

All of us in this debate have probably dealt with cases where we do not believe someone got a fair trial. I have recently dealt with the case of Garry Mann, who was returned to Portugal under a European Arrest Warrant. In the original trial both the charge and sentence were delivered orally. Mr Mann did not know what he was charged with until after he was convicted. The interpreter was a local hairdresser, a friend of the judge's wife. When he was deported back to the UK he was given a simple letter in English effectively saying not to come back to Portugal for two years, yet years later a European Arrest Warrant was issued to summon him back to serve sentence.

Lack of a proper and professional language support has also figured as one of the defects in the case I am dealing with in Greece of Andrew Symeou.

The aim of this measure is not only to make sure that Member States are implementing Article 6 of the European Convention, but also to further develop its minimum standards. As the road map last November said, there is room for further action on the part of the EU to ensure full implementation in respect of convention standards and, where appropriate, to ensure consistent application of those standards and to raise them.

I believe Parliament made good use of its newly acquired Lisbon Treaty powers of joint responsibility for legislation. We fought hard with a lot of help from Vice-President Reding, to whom I pay tribute, and her officials, to raise standards on certain key points, including interpretation of communications between the suspect and the lawyer in all phases of the proceedings, the right for the suspect to challenge the decision that there is no need for interpretation or translation, and also the right to complain on quality.

We secured the right to limit recourse to partial translation, so all essential material must be translated and oral exceptions must indeed be exceptions, and that the suspect should not be allowed to waive the right to translation without prior advice. Those are just some of the key points.

To sum up, I believe strongly in the European arrest warrant, but we need the road-map programme to strengthen citizens' rights and make it work better. Strengthening safeguards and defence rights is not at all about being soft on crime. It is about being tough on crime. Good efficient justice through high-quality decisions means catching more criminals, and cutting corners on costs is not best value since if you get a poor court decision or bad police practice, then people are going to appeal.

Cheap justice is no justice. I therefore commend this directive to you. I thank the Spanish Presidency, with whom we have a good process of negotiation as well as with the Commission, and I will deal in my summing-up with the plenary amendments being tabled.

Summing up remarks:

Sarah Ludford, rapporteur. − Madam President, I would like very sincerely to thank my high-quality shadow rapporteurs for their help. I am pleased we are debating and voting this directive this week, still under the Spanish Presidency. It is historic, being the first criminal justice measure negotiated under codecision and the first EU fair trial law.

I strongly agree with Vice-President Reding about the three-year implementation period. It was very cheeky of Member States to slip this in unilaterally after we had reached a Council-Parliament deal. They will not get away with it again. I say to UKIP that there is no call to get nationalistic about the quality of justice. I am strongly critical of the lower UK standards that developed over the last decade like control orders, which are house arrest, and 20-day detention without charge. I hope the new government returns fully to the rule of law.

I am very pleased that my country and Ireland have exercised their opt-in to participate, so this directive will cover 26 countries. This directive is in the spirit of Magna Carta, habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights, whereas UKIP would let bank robbers and terrorists escape justice.

Turning to the amendments, Mrs de Brún explained the amendments on the rights to use European regional or minority languages. While having sympathy with their motivation, I have to oppose them because they do not in fact fit the directive. The test in the directive is one of comprehension and ability to express oneself, as Vice-President Reding said. It is not about the right to choose as such, so there has to be a procedure of verification of the person's ability to speak and understand and, if they do not accept the language offered, the option would be to challenge the decision. Member State national laws specifying minority language rights are unaffected, although in practice those rights are arguably increased in that if the speaker of a minority language is unable to understand the proceedings then the directive's rights apply equally to them.

I ask that the directive be passed unamended and quickly so that it gets on the statute book. I look forward to Commission proposals on the further road map measures - the first expected in about a fortnight - and I know that in the hands of our feisty champion, Vice-President Reding, they are in very good hands.