Steve Hynes, LAG’s director, who last month attended the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights’ conference ‘Justice in austerity – challenges and opportunities for access to justice’ in Brussels, writes:
The UK was criticised for adopting an '"empty-chair policy' when it comes to justice and fundamental rights issues' by Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission and the EU Justice Commissioner. In a hard-hitting speech entitled ‘A European Union grounded in justice and fundamental rights’, she said that recently the UK had ‘decided not to take part in realising the important goals we have set for the new Justice programme, which seeks to promote judicial co-operation in civil and criminal matters, to facilitate access to justice and to prevent and reduce drug supply and demand’. Viviane Reding complained that because of the UK’s failure to agree the Multiannual Framework on the work of the fundamental rights agency, its work was threatened as the document has to be signed off by all the member states.
In what seemed like a direct challenge to Conservative politicians in the UK who wish to renegotiate the country’s relationship with the EU, she commented that the Union ‘is not a free trade area and not only an internal market. It is a Community of values in which respect for fundamental rights is the pre-condition for accession to the Union’. She also observed that there seemed to be some ‘dragging of feet’ on the UK’s part in complying with the European Convention on Human Rights, and that the majority of British citizens believed that their individual rights were important.
During the working group on ‘Ensuring access to a lawyer and access to legal aid’, there were some positive comments on the UK’s record on access to justice. For example, Edouard De Lamaze, a French lawyer and a member of the European Economic and Social Committee, praised the UK’s system of advice in police stations. Staffan Moberg, who is senior legal adviser at Insurance Sweden, discussed his country’s use of legal expenses insurance as an alternative to legal aid. He explained that there is 97 per cent coverage of Sweden’s population with compulsory household insurance which includes legal expenses insurance. Low-income households, he said, are required to pay for the insurance from state benefits ‘as it is seen as essential’. Unfortunately, the scheme does not cover ‘administrative matters’, which include welfare benefit cases, divorce and employment law disputes.