EU moves to protect rights of victims

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The European Commission will propose today (18 May) a package of measures aimed at boosting the protection of the 30 million citizens who every year fall victims of crime in the European Union.

If a German citizen is robbed in Greece or an Italian family is involved in a road accident in Sweden, their rights as victims are not always as protected as they would be in their country of origin.

Despite clear indications from European jurisprudence (see 'Background'), discrimination of victims on the basis of their nationality is still commonplace in the European Union.

Foreign victims can face unjustified obstacles to obtaining fair compensation, or might be left without proper support and protection. Indeed, even when local rules envisage protection of their rights, foreign victims could still feel marginalised by language and cultural barriers.

"The risk is that victims are victimised twice," EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told EURACTIV.

The Commission believes the phenomenon can have huge economic consequences. On average, crime costs the EU almost €250 billion a year. But the bill can get even higher. A badly treated victim can cost much more to society in terms of extra medical care and days off work.

When victims are not properly taken care of, they also tend to prolong their convalescence phase and to deeply involve people close to them, bringing the number of total victims (direct and indirect) to over 75 million a year, according to the EU executive.

Commission proposals

To tackle this situation, the Commission is today unveiling two fresh pieces of legislation. The first and more comprehensive part is a directive on minimum standards for victims.

National legislation is not harmonised on civil and criminal matters, giving citizens a rude awakening when they are most in need, in that some of their rights are not properly taken into account in another EU country.

In particular, "the role and needs of victims in criminal proceedings are still not fully addressed in national judicial systems," reads the Commission proposal, obtained by EURACTIV.

The new directive would instead provide a set of common rules to be enforced in all 27 member states. For instance, victims of crime should decide whether or not to participate in any trial, and should get support in "a way they can understand" wherever they are.

Mutual recognition

The EU executive will also propose a new regulation on mutual recognition of civil law protection measures. This will be particularly handy for those who benefit from protection in a member state but risk not having those provisions recognised when travelling abroad.

A victim of stalking for instance, could find themselves at risk while on holiday simply because protection measures are not equally recognised across the EU.

The regulation aims to bring to an end such loopholes. A similar move was proposed for criminal matters in 2009 and is now being discussed by the EU institutions.

Later in her mandate, Commissioner Reding also plans to address the issue of compensation of foreign victims, which sometimes entails such a long process that victims give up exercising their rights.

New rules are also in the pipeline to increase the protection of the rights of victims of road accidents. The Commission estimates that every year in Europe, one million accidents cause around 40,000 deaths and many more injuries.

Francesco Guarascio

"Whether a person has been the victim of a mugging, robbery, home break-in, assault, rape, harassment, hate crime, terrorist attack, or human trafficking – everyone shares the same basic needs: to be recognised and treated with respect and dignity; to receive protection; to receive support; and to have access to justice," EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told EURACTIV.

"The new laws will ensure victims get the recognition and the respect they deserve and receive the same level of protection, support and access to justice throughout the EU, no matter where in the EU they come from or live," she added.

In a letter sent to the Commission, the most prominent MEPs on the European Parliament's committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs, including chair Juan Fernando López Aguilar (Socialists & Democrats; Spain), supported the EU executive's initiative.

"We assure the Commission that they have our full commitment in making this proposal one which restores trusts and gives added value for citizens who find themselves or their family members victims of a crime," reads the letter.

Victim Support Europe, a network of organisations dedicated to the support of victims active in 21 European countries, also supported Reding's plan.

"Adopting EU legislation that sets out equal rights for victims in all member states will improve the situation for victims, increase the trust between countries and facilitate the mutual recognition of judgements and judicial decisions in the wider area of justice," said the president of Victim Support Europe, David McKenna.

The European Court of Justice established back in 1989 the principle that victims of a crime should receive the same treatment wherever the crime is committed.

The landmark ruling was issued in the case Cowan v. Trésor, which set British citizen Ian William Cowan against the French state. Cowan was robbed and injured in Paris while he was on holiday. He claimed compensation and the European Court of Justice upheld his right to do so.

The ruling paved the way for a number of legislative actions to improve the cross-border protection of victims. A directive establishing a European protection order is currently being discussed by the EU institutions.

The Lisbon Treaty explicitly calls for the development of judicial cooperation on civil (Art. 81) and criminal matters (Art. 82) among EU member states.

  • 2011-2012: European Parliament and Council are expected to adopt Commission proposals on rights of victims.
  • By 2012: Regulation on mutual recognition of civil law protection measures expected to be in force across Europe.
  • By 2014: New directive on minimum standard for victims should have been transposed into all EU national legislation.
  • By end of her mandate, Commissioner Viviane Reding aims to have proposed new rules on compensation for victims of crime and victims of road accidents.

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