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Friday, October 26, 2007

Why UK justice safeguard cannot be watertight

In the House of Commons yesterday Frank Dobson MP raised the "injustice" done to one of his constituents, Joseph Mendy, under the provisions of the European Arrest Warrant. Mendy was arrested in the Canary Islands in November 2003 on suspicion of counterfeiting €50 euro notes despite the fact he was never found in possession of a counterfeited note. He and his friends were released and heard nothing more from the Spanish authorities until March this year when he was served with a European Arrest Warrant. Mendy appealed the extradition but as Dobson stressed, "this involves the UK courts doing nothing more than going through the motions, because there are virtually no grounds on which to challenge a European extradition warrant."

Dobson continued:

"At the subsequent court appearance in Madrid, Joe Mendy was denied bail on the bizarre grounds that he was a flight risk. By this time, the Spanish judicial holidays were commencing, so my innocent constituent of exemplary good character was held in the Spanish jail over the summer." "After spending almost two months on remand in the Spanish jail, Joe appeared before a Spanish judge on 15 September. His Spanish lawyer advised him that if he continued to plead not guilty, he was likely to be held in jail for at least a further year before his case came to trial. If, however, he pleaded guilty, he would, because of his exemplary record in Britain, get a suspended sentence and a small fine. Understandably in such dreadful circumstances, he pleaded guilty and got a two-year suspended sentence and a €600 fine."

"The treatment of Joe Mendy is a disgrace; it is exactly the sort of incident that brings European institutions into disrepute. What happened to the warrant between June 2004 and March 2007? Was it mislaid? Sadly, the law that we passed does not require the authorities to use their common sense or to have a sense of proportion. Having being passed by the House on the argument that it would speed up extradition, our law does not demand that the authorities proceed expeditiously. Instead, it demonstrably permits them to take nearly four years to crank up this draconian machinery."

Home Office Minister Meg Hillier responded saying:

"We have to have faith in our European partners, and there are safeguards in place to ensure that each European country has a proper legal and judicial process to take such decisions. We have heard that Mr Mendy’s case has been concluded and that he is back in the UK having received a suspended sentence. I am pleased to hear that he can now start at Liverpool University next year and begin to get his life back on track."

It goes without saying that this is a totally unacceptable outcome for a system that was originally intended to expedite the fight against serious organised crime and terrorism.

Sadly, it is likely that this case is far from unique. As leaked Commission documents revealed this summer, EU Arrest Warrants (EAWs) have been frequently issued for trivial crimes - including the theft of two car tyres, and a single case of piglet rustling. The EU report admits that the arrest warrants are being used "disproportionately" to the seriousness of offences.

It is clear from this case that serious inconsistencies in standards can arise between different legal regimes across different member states. But this sits uneasily with the basis of the EAW: judicial mutual recognition. For this reason, it is almost certain that we’ll hear increasing calls for legislating for EU-wide criminal procedural standards – in other words, the problems arising from mutual recognition creates the impetus for full harmonisation.

The revised EU Constitution provides the avenue for such harmonisation, with the dropping of national vetos in justice and home affairs. It is unlikely the UK will be immune from these developments, despite the Government’s claim to have an ‘opt-in’ arrangement in this area.

In short, the nature of the UK ‘safeguard’ on JHA puts a gun to the head of the Government if it wishes to opt out of future developments based on existing legislation which already applies to the UK, like the EAW. If the UK doesn’t want to accept the amending legislation to something like the EAW, then it will be thrown out of participation in that legislation in its entirety.

Given current the current security situation, it is highly unlikely that the UK Government would be prepared to give up any form of agreement with other member states on extradition, such as the EAW. It would therefore be highly problematic for Britain not to opt-in on measures amending the EAW.

If, as seems probable, the EU does choose to move towards criminal procedural harmonisation in order to address the issues raised by cases such as that of Joe Mendy, it would be unlikely the UK could in practice exclude itself from such moves under the revised Constitution.

Should the Constitution be ratified, existing UK participation in European extradition agreements will be a powerful lever to force the UK to opt in on future EU justice and home affairs legislation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don't wait. Do what you can. A classic constitution limits the power of politics:

Vote YES to Free Europe Constitution at www.FreeEurope.info!