Closing remarks by Maija Sakslin, Chairperson of the Management Board, at the end of the Fundamental Rights Conference 2012.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to address you at the end of two such productive, and instructive, days of discussion.
We can draw a number of conclusions from this conference, both from the keynote speeches and the panels, and also of course from today’s working groups.
1) The first message to take away: Despite the economic crisis and the austerity measures - or perhaps it would be better to say because of them, access to justice must be increased, not reduced. But this is not so much about the quantity, but about the quality of access to justice.
Access to justice is a fundamental right in itself. But it is especially important, because it ensures the enforcement of other fundamental rights. Fundamental rights, access to justice and an indpendent and effective judiciary are cornerstones of our democratic societies. The other two being legislative and executive powers.
Therfore, I would very much like to second President Schulz when he said: “Fundamental rights and economic success are two sides of the same coin. We need to monitor fundamental rights as we monitor budget deficits.”
The right to effective remedy, and the opportunity to seek redress for violations are basic rights - including in times of austerity. And when times get harder, more rights violations are likely to occur.
It was said yesterday that despite serious fiscal constraints, we must honour our obligation to all, especially the most vulnerable. And that Member States face challenges to build a society that is equal and fair. The crisis cannot be an alibi or an excuse.
In the current difficult economic and social situation, the role of the non-governmental and private sectors were underlined as being vital to ensure access to justice for all. However, governments must take their responsibilities seriously. The enforecement of human rights is the responisibitly of the state. The role of the NGOs and of the private sector should supplement but not replace government measures. Therefore, promising models of governments supporting the non-governmental actors and private legal aid schemes should be further encouraged and promoted. For, as the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, rightly recalled: Legal aid is not as charity but an obligation of the community as a whole.
2) The second message is: it is crucial to ensure that people, and especially vulnerable groups, are aware of their rights.
There are many new tools for raising legal awareness, including of course e-justice tools. But any e-tool needs an initial investment. This can be even more challenging to achieve in times of austerity. Also, quite some education and training will be needed. But in the long term, indeed justice will become more effective with using e-tools. However, the best e-technology will not be able to replace human contact. Any step, any awareness raising must start with the person concerned, and with understanding what really a person’s problem is.
In this context, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay reminded us that authorities should mitigate the social impacts of the austerity measures on the most vulnerable segments of the population.
In fact, non-judicial mechanisms can be a relatively low-cost alternative to traditional forms of justice. But one thing is clear: reactive work, i.e. just responding to cases, is not enough. Instead, resources must be devoted to pro-active measures, such as awareness raising, prevention, or monitoring. In the medium term, this would lower the overall costs of justice – both financially and socially. So – front loading is vital. This also includes ensuring legal aid at the earliest possible stage – which will help reduce costs later on.
In addition, as Commission Vice President Reding underlined yesterday: If we want to ensure an effective justice, we need to address obstacles people may face throughout the different parts of this ‘justice chain’.
For this to happen, legal aid should not be limited to legal representation fees or the cost of court proceedings. It should also include any other charges that constitute real barriers for the individual to access justice, such as transportation costs. Of course, access to a lawyer and legal aid is particularly important in cross-border situations.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The third, and very encouraging, message that we take from this conference is:
3) There are good instruments available - but they need to be used more.
It is important to use the current circumstances to deal constructively with the situation. What could be new, innovative ways forward?
There are a number of very interesting examples of what tools we can best make use of to improve the situation – now, and even after the crisis is over:
One such instrument is mediation. There is a lot of potential in accessing justice using this mechanism of alternative dispute resolution. A crucial element is the enforceability of mediation outcomes, to ensure that people feel confindent to use this tool. Some countries have made very positive experiences with mandatory mediation. Overall evidence shows that mediation brings huge cost savings, as compared to going down the route of litigation.
The Agency is currently working on a project on victim support services. We will be presenting an overview of the various models and features of victim support in existence across the EU next year. This will include promising practices of victim support services that can serve as models
And indeed, Member States can learn from one another to improve victim support services across the EU, including sharing innovative ways to overcome the problem of limited resources. Cooperation between (and within) victim support services, judiciary, police authorities and civil society is key.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In this time of austerity, by learning from each others, we will be able to make the practices that work in other countries work in our own countries.
Dear participants of this Fundamental Rights Conference,I’m very glad that you could attend this year’s Fundamental Rights Conference. I look forward to seeing many of you again in the course of our work over the years to come. In this context I would like to extend an early invitation to next year’s fundamental rights conference in Vilnius in mid-November, which the Agency will host together with the Lithuanian Presidency of the Council of the EU. We will discuss the important topic of how to combat hate crime in the EU.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
For me, the overarching key message of our confernece has been: Justice may seem expensive - but to not provide justice will give rise to even greater costs, both financial and societal costs.
I wish that this conference has inspired you to continue your most important work - in strengthening our democracies and respect for people’s human rights. And here in fact all the working groups discussed possibilities for sharing knowledge and practices as well as concrete promising practices. How can we keep leanring from each other, also after this conference is over?
I would like to thank you all for coming – from all parts of the EU. In ensuring access to justice we all have a role to play, and it is very encouraging to see that we are so many who are determined to do exactly that.
I would like to thank all speakers and all participants for all your valuable contributions. And thanks to all FRA staff who prepared this conference. And last but of course not least to anyone at the European Parliament, including the interpreters, for making this conference happen.
Thank you. Have a safe journey home.