By Martin Banks - 11th January 2012
We need a tighter approach
British MEP Sarah Ludford has voiced reservations about a draft EU law designed to give added protection to criminal suspects.
The EU directive aims to improve the right of access to a lawyer in criminal proceedings and on the right to communicate following an arrest.
In an opinion adopted by parliament's legal affairs on 20 December, MEPs backed the proposal.
But, speaking at a debate on the issue in parliament on Wednesday, Ludford, an ALDE member, expressed reservations about the directive.
She said that while she hopes the directive comes into law, there was a "great deal of ambiguity" in the draft legislation.
She said, "We need a tighter approach in terms of ensuring that a lawyer is present when someone is being questioned."
This already applies in some countries, such as the UK, but less so in other member states, she stated.
She added, "Unless this issue is resolved, we can propose as much as we want but it will not be worth the paper it is written on."
Ludford said, "Prosecutors across Europe have had their power boosted by instruments like the European arrest warrant. It is high time that suspects' rights when arrested abroad should also be strengthened.
"But commonsense should also prevail so that, for example, a motorist stopped for a breath-test cannot demand a lawyer's presence."
The debate was organised by Jan Albrecht, a Greens MEP and member of the legal affairs committee.
He hopes the directive will be the "first step" towards the creation of "minimum standards" for criminal suspects.
"There is a need for harmonisation. I think most people agree on this," he said.
Albrecht "named and shamed" those member states which currently oppose the directive – the UK, Netherlands, France, Belgium and Ireland.
The right of access to a lawyer is, in theory, guaranteed, but the meeting was told that implementation varies from one member state to another.
It was said that this presents "difficulties" for both judicial cooperation and the free movement of people.
Some countries allow suspects access to legal assistance after a certain amount of time has passed but this does not apply in other countries.
In order to give "teeth" to these rights, the commission proposed the access to a lawyer directive.
Some member states, such as the UK, have voiced concern, notably about the supposed extra costs involved in the implementation.
Participants cited the current situation in Scotland which does not guarantee suspects the right to contact a lawyer within the first six hours of arrest.
It was said this is a violation of the European convention on human rights.