Opening remarks at Annual Dialogue between FRA and the EU Committee of the Regions

The director made the opening remarks at the Annual Dialogue with the Committee of the Regions on 'The economic crisis – Obstacle or incubator for innovation in access to justice?'

Ladies and gentlemen,

Governments are always looking for ways to save money, and their search is at present particularly meticulous. This, however, does not always make it effective; and key to my remarks here today is that saving on measures aimed to help individuals seeking justice is not only short sighted, but could risk a dangerous decline in trust towards the state, with potentially dire consequences.

It is clear that the justice system cannot remain completely immune to the budget cuts being made throughout the EU. But the challenge we all face is to ensure the system remains independent and efficient, that citizens’ access is not impaired, and that there is no overall detrimental effect on the quality of justice dispensed.

As social hardship grows, more and more Europeans are finding themselves in a vulnerable situation. Unemployment in the EU is at its highest rate in well over a decade, and with this and stagnating wage growth in many countries, poverty and social exclusion are on the increase. And in this time of crisis, there is often a search for scapegoats that leads to xenophobia and other fundamental rights violations. So more help in access to justice is needed, and not less, whether the conventional route via the courts is taken or non-judicial mechanisms such as ombudsmen, national human rights institutions or equality bodies are used. Here, local and regional authorities can and do play an important role, providing information about rights and available redress mechanisms, as well as practical assistance in asserting those rights.

However, legislation is often insufficiently accommodating, which can discourage victims from reporting crimes and fundamental rights violations. A common rule that stipulates the losing side in a court case must pay all the legal costs involved may prevent individuals from pursuing complaints, especially at present. In others, compensation appears to be so low that it neither acts as a deterrent for the perpetrator nor fully compensates the victim for the harm suffered. As ever more Europeans find themselves in an increasingly precarious financial situation, therefore, their willingness to seek redress diminishes.

Some groups are more liable to suffer fundamental rights violations, reaching from ethnic discrimination through to slave labour – not only in times of crisis but even more so when times are hard. And it is these same groups that often face particular difficulties in gaining access to justice. Irregular migrants, people with intellectual disabilities, Roma and other vulnerable groups are all people who may be denied the opportunity to seek redress.

  • A FRA survey has shown that almost half of Roma experience discrimination, but that 82 percent of those discriminated against do not report the experience.
  • The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights stipulates that “no one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour”. But this is unfortunately the reality, and the lack of a written contract or other formal proof of employment is a factor that prevents many irregular migrants from reporting abuses.

What we in Europe must realise, though, is that shutting off people’s access to justice can carry real social and political costs. One initial sign of this is the diminishing trust in public bodies we are seeing in some member states, including in the judiciary. In Britain1, for instance, trust in senior police officers has decreased by 17 percentage points over the last nine years. Only 12.5 percent of Austrians2 between the ages of 14 and 29 have confidence in the judiciary.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Maintaining social cohesion must be a key concept in any consideration of potential budget cuts. The sense among some people belonging to vulnerable groups that they are forever being humiliated and have no means of redress, may be social tinder that once lit could be hard to extinguish. Despite the financial crisis, access to justice must be increased and not impeded. Access to justice is not a luxury that can be dispensed with. As Albert Einstein said: “In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same”.

And now comes the difficult question: what can be done?

Access to justice is not just having your case heard in a court of law. Confidence in the judiciary and the ability of the justice system to meet the needs of citizens should be underpinned by institutions at local, national and international level.

So, firstly: Europe’s local and regional authorities have a vital role to play in the day-to-day application of fundamental rights. They are the cornerstone of awareness raising at grassroots level. For one of the greatest problems in gaining access to justice is that many vulnerable groups do not know what rights they have; or are afraid to use them. Next year we will be launching the CLARITY project (Complaints, Legal Assistance and Rights Information Tools for You). This will be an online information platform available from 2014 that provides information on how and where to make a complaint about fundamental rights violations.

Secondly, we need to both strengthen the mechanisms facilitating access to justice that are already at our disposal, and to explore innovative solutions that have not yet been used or are insufficiently utilised. Recent FRA research identifies a number of good practices throughout the member states. These include simplified and less formalistic procedural rules; e-justice initiatives that aim to increase accessibility at no cost; generous rules on legal standing (such as public interest actions), which would allow third parties such as NGOs and equality bodies to bring claims on behalf of victims; the availability of redress other than compensation; as well as pro bono initiatives and legal advice centres and insurance schemes that can help cover legal fees.

Let me give you an example: according to research carried out at the behest of the European Parliament, mediation, where successful, could save approximately three-quarters of the amount currently spent on each judicial dispute. But although it cuts the costs of litigation so significantly, mediation is little used. A great deal could – and should – be done to make mediation and other alternative dispute resolution mechanisms more widely available.

It is also important that specific aspects of national legislation and jurisprudence are analysed more carefully. For example, cases brought for the same reason time and time again in a number of member states may well signal a general structural problem that needs to be addressed.

Finally, we should encourage active citizenship, with volunteering, civic engagement and participation at the local level taking greater precedence. We need a robust fundamental rights culture that encourages people to stand up for themselves and lodge complaints if their rights have been infringed.

To sum up:

  • It is precisely in times of crisis that we need a strong and independent judiciary, as well as effective ombudsinstitutions, equality bodies and national and local human rights institutions; for otherwise we risk undermining core human rights and democratic values.
  • This time of budgetary austerity must be seen as an occasion to consider and indeed expand the concept of access to justice without compromising the quality.
  • Governments and local authorities must fully understand and take advantage of the fact that a strong judicial system fosters the investments the economy so much needs. From this perspective, access to justice should be regarded as an element of Europe’s economic revival.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Article 47 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights states that “everyone shall have the possibility of being advised, defended and represented” and that “legal aid shall be made available to those who lack sufficient resources”. The Charter is a legally binding document for all member states and EU Institutions, whichever way the political wind is blowing and whatever the economic situation. We do not therefore have to discuss whether or not the Charter should be applied. The only question is how.

I look forward to our discussion today and at the forthcoming Fundamental Rights Conference in the European Parliament, which will address current challenges around access to justice and suggest possible solutions.

1YouGov survey published on 11 January 2012: http://yougov.co.uk/publicopinion/archive/3846/

2Marketagent.com survey published on 10 September 2012: http://www.marketagent.com/webfiles/pdf/events/%7B3DE87A7A-FCA1-4A2D-9E9B-7683CAF37750%7D.PDF

For a pdf version of the speech refer to the download section.