EU proposal to give greater rights to criminal suspects

 

THE EU has reintroduced a controversial plan to give more rights to criminal suspects, despite opposition from Ireland.

The plan, published yesterday by the European Commission, would give suspects held throughout the EU the right to quality interpretation and translation free of charge at all stages of criminal proceedings, including appeals. It would also force governments to offer training to judges, lawyers and other court staff to make sure that defendants can understand the proceedings.

Next year the European Commission will propose other rights for suspects in a step-by-step approach, such as the right to a lawyer, legal aid, contact with their embassy and family, a list of what they are entitled to and specific help for vulnerable suspects, such as minors and people who are illiterate or elderly.

Ireland, along with five other EU member states, blocked a 2004 plan that offered all of these rights at the same time.

The Irish Government argued the European Convention on Human Rights already provided these rights and that the EU proposal would overlap with them and cause confusion over which body was responsible.

Jacques Barrot, European commissioner for justice and security, yesterday rejected this argument. “That convention is not always properly implemented. When it is not properly implemented any appeals [to the European Court of Human Rights] are both complex and lengthy,” he said.

The commission hopes the step-by-step approach to introducing rights for suspects will make it more palatable for some countries. The UK, which also opposed the original plan, prefers this method since it would allow it to assess the impact of introducing such rights at EU level.

An Irish official said the Government would study the proposal and put forward a position “over the coming months”.

Human rights campaigners and defence lawyer associations say the move is vital given the various laws introduced by the EU to make it easier for police forces to co-operate.

Campaigners also point to the different ways rights are applied across the EU. A 2005 study shows that in Ireland, Austria, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Scotland suspects do not have the right to a lawyer while being interviewed by the police.

Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Luxembourg and Spain recruit qualified translators to work with suspects, but no such recruitment exists in Ireland, Estonia, Finland or Sweden.

James MacGuill, a criminal lawyer, said Ireland should sign up to giving suspects across the EU the same standards of rights. “Ireland has shown no lack of willingness to introduce EU laws on the enforcement side, but things remain utterly blocked on the procedural safeguards for Irish citizens abroad and for citizens throughout the EU,” he said.