EU seals language rights law for criminal trials


People in Europe facing criminal proceedings outside their country of residence came within touching distance of receiving translation and interpretation in their own language yesterday (16 June), after the European Parliament gave its backing to EU legislation on the issue. 

The directive, which was first tabled by the European Commission in July 2009, aims to set EU-wide minimum standards giving citizens the right to receive interpretation and translation in their native language in criminal cases across the European Union.

The MEPs backed the draft text, which is intended to improve the rights of suspects or accused persons who do not understand the language of proceedings, by a huge majority of 637 votes to 21 yesterday.

The directive can now pass into EU law as it has already been approved by member states in the Council of Ministers.

Yesterday's text must still be formally adopted by governments in the Council as stipulated by the Lisbon Treaty's co-decision provisions, but this is considered a procedural formality after justice ministers backed the draft directive on 4 June.

'Historic event'   

UK Liberal Democrat MEP Sarah Ludford, whose role as the European Parliament's rapporteur on the directive saw her conduct negotiations with the Spanish EU Presidency, hailed the adoption of the new rules as "a genuinely historic event" and a "leap forward for European justice".

It will "strengthen fair trial rights and equality of procedural rights throughout the EU," she said. "What the Parliament voted for today is effective, efficient and transparent justice. Now it is for member states to make it happen," she added.

The new law ensures that people suspected of having committed a crime on EU soil will receive written translations of all essential documents – including the detention order, charge sheet and indictment – when facing trial outside of their country of residence, rather than having to rely upon oral translations summarising the evidence.

Under the new rules, not only will interpretation have to be provided at trial, but also for communication with lawyers and during investigations, including police questioning.

The accused must have access to interpretation and translation in his/her native language during all phases of criminal proceedings "of every kind," from the time he/she is made aware that he is suspected or accused of committing a criminal offence until all appeals are exhausted and including questioning, pre-trial, sentencing and detention.

When it is impossible for interpreters to attend in person, videoconferencing, telephone or Internet can be used "unless the physical presence of the interpreter is required in order to safeguard the fairness of the proceedings," the Parliament said.

Costs to be borne by member states

The cost of providing such services will be borne by the EU country in which the accused is standing trial rather than by the suspect.

"Any extra costs that the directive will impose on member states are the irreducible cost of ensuring fair trials and avoiding miscarriages of justice and will in any case be balanced by fewer costly appeals and delays," said Parliament rapporteur Ludford.

"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," she said.

Moreover, the law stipulates that before waiving their right to interpretation and translation, citizens must be given the chance to speak to a lawyer.

The same rights will be offered to persons subject to a European Arrest Warrant, as well as people with hearing or speech impediments. 

"It is the first – and an overdue – EU measure on fair trials to go alongside the European Arrest Warrant and also the first EU criminal justice legislation to be negotiated under co-decision with MEPs rather than decided by national ministers alone," said Ludford.

Denmark will not adopt the legislation as it does not take part in any EU initiatives on criminal justice.

The EU's other 26 governments have three years to transpose the directive into national law.

"Today's vote is the fruit of hard work from rapporteur Baroness Sarah Ludford and the civil liberties committee, and their dedication to fair trial rights. Both the Parliament and the Council worked hard to ensure [that] the new rules live up to the standards of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights," said EU Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Commissioner Viviane Reding, declaring that the directive will have "a real impact on EU citizens' lives".

"I have been very firm on the details of these rules, because fair trial rights are required by the Charter of Fundamental Rights and second-class rights are no rights at all," Reding said, adding: "Justice delayed is justice denied."

Thanking MEPs for agreeing with the European Commission throughout the negotiations, she expressed hope that member states would "put these measures in place and effectively apply them quickly, because injustice knows no rest".

UK Liberal Democrat MEP Sarah Ludford, who led the European Parliament's negotiations with the Spanish EU Presidency and was responsible for steering the directive through the EU assembly, said "as more people cross borders under EU free movement rights, there are unacceptable miscarriages of justice due to inadequate defence safeguards, including lack of proper language provision".

"Member states are worried about cost, but cheap justice is expensive in appeals, failure to convict and loss of reputation. If we really want to catch criminals, we need good justice through Rolls-Royce not Rambo prosecutions," Ludford said.

"These measures will deliver real justice to some of our most vulnerable citizens,” she said, adding: "There are too many cases where people find themselves accused of a crime abroad, but are unable to understand the details of the accusation or the proceedings that are applied against them," she said.

"When people need clarity most, they can feel faced by an Alice in Wonderland justice system where nothing feels certain or makes real sense," Ludford added.

"Ensuring procedural guarantees for suspected or accused persons becomes increasingly important in safeguarding their rights to a fair trial. We consider that common standards should be applied in the field of interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings," said Romanian centre-right MEP Elena Oana Antonescu, shadow rapporteur on the directive on behalf of the European People's Party (EPP) group.

"The EPP group wants to protect the individual and to ensure mutual trust in each other's criminal justice systems. Mutual recognition presupposes that the competent authorities in member states trust the criminal justice systems of other member states," Antonescu said.

"Adherence to the standards set out in the European Convention of Human Rights represents the minimum standards below which no EU state must fall. We want to protect citizens' rights and provide the accused with interpretation and translation for criminal proceedings, thus facilitating a common judicial area in the EU," she added.

"With these new measures in the field of judicial cooperation between member states, we intend to provide a follow up to the Stockholm Programme, adopted by the European Council in December 2009, which reaffirmed the importance of the rights of the individual in criminal proceedings as a fundamental value of the European Union," the MEP concluded.

The European Commission first tabled draft legislation on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings on 8 July 2009, an initiative which was backed by the European Parliament's civil liberties committee on 8 April 2010 (EURACTIV 09/04/10).

Growing numbers of Europeans travel, study and work outside of their home countries, creating the need for legislation to ensure that they receive interpretation and have essential procedural documents translated should they find themselves faced with criminal charges abroad. 

All EU member states have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, which covers the procedural rights of people suspected or accused of criminal offences. 

However, the convention is not implemented consistently throughout Europe, creating the need for further action to protect individuals, foster mutual trust between national justice systems, and promote judicial cooperation between EU countries.

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