MEPs back interpretation rights for suspected criminals

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People in Europe facing criminal proceedings outside of their country of residence moved one step closer to receiving translation and interpretation in their own language yesterday (8 April), after MEPs gave their backing to draft EU legislation on the issue.

MEPs in the European Parliament's civil liberties committee were voting on a draft directive presented by the European Commission on 9 March, after 13 member states had asked it to table proposals on the matter.

The directive 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, and represents the first step in a series of upcoming proposals designed to establish common EU standards in criminal law cases.

The MEPs backed the draft text by large majority yesterday.  

If adopted, the new law would ensure that persons suspected of having committed a crime on EU soil 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 would interpretation have to be provided at trial, but also for communication with lawyers and during investigations, including police questioning.

Member states to pay for provisions

The cost of providing such services would be borne by the EU country in which the accused is standing trial rather than the suspect, according to the draft.

MEPs insisted that the accused must have access to interpretation and translation during all phases of criminal proceedings "of every kind," from the time of questioning until all appeals are exhausted and including pre-trial, sentencing and detention.

Moreover, the draft 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. 

European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, responsible for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, stressed the importance of resisting "the temptation to settle for a less-than-comprehensive proposal that would risk not fully complying with the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights".

The MEPs underlined that the new rules should also cover the rules of detention, how to seek information and make complaints, and all official context between the detaining authorities and the suspect.

They also called for appropriate measures to be taken to ensure that suspects with physical or learning disabilities receive the same rights.

"By taking a firm position on the importance of these rights, the Parliament has taken into account not only the view of the Commission, but also the view of those who deal with this issue day in, day out," Reding said, citing national bar associations, the European Criminal Bar Association and the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe.

"The fact that these organisations share the European Commission's concerns should be a strong motivation to urgently drive forward these proposals to make sure citizens receive the protection granted to them by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights," she added. 

When it is impossible for interpreters to attend proceedings in person, MEPs agreed that video, telephone or Internet links could be employed as a "last resort", with the exception of court appearances.

Committee members urged member states to put in place training and accreditation systems for interpreters and translators working in the legal arena, whose names should be included in an EU-wide database made available to lawyers and the relevant authorities.

MEPs also want judges, prosecutors, lawyers, police and court staff to be trained to assess the linguistic needs of suspects.

The amended proposal must still be approved in plenary by the whole European Parliament as well as by the EU's 27 governments.

Talks will now begin with the Council with a view to reaching a deal before the summer.

Responding to the committee's vote, European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, responsible for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, said "I am glad that the European Parliament shares the European Commission's goal of ensuring a high standard of fair trial rights".

"I congratulate rapporteur Baroness Sarah Ludford and the civil liberties committee for their dedication and hard work to ensure that rights to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings are protected across the EU," Reding said.

"I am also very satisfied that the Commission's proposal on procedural rights of 9 March led the UK and Ireland to opt in to the EU initiative on translation and interpretation rights," she concluded.

Explaining that translation and interpretation costs would have to be met by the member state concerned rather than the suspect, Liberal Democrat MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford (UK; Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), said "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". 

The European Commission tabled draft legislation on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings on 8 July 2009. 

That same month, the Swedish EU Presidency presented a roadmap requesting the Commission to draw up wide-ranging proposals on procedural reform, including on interpretation and translation. 

Last October, justice ministers warned of the "complexity" of harmonising suspected or accused criminals’ procedural rights at EU level and welcomed the Swedish Presidency's decision "to address them in a step-by-step approach". 

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.

  • May: Council of Ministers to discuss proposals.
  • By summer: Commission to table plans for a 'Letter of Rights', detailing suspected criminals' right to information about their rights. 

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