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Euro Court may open UK branches

LONDON and Edinburgh could have their own mini European Courts of Justice under decentralisation plans aimed at easing the growing congestion and delay of cases being heard in Luxembourg.

The proposed break-up of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is part of a radical programme of reform which would mark the biggest shake-up since its foundation in1952. An ECJ's 33-page report argues that national courts of the ECJ sited in each member state would have the advantage of operating in the language of that country - helping to reduce the delay caused by the huge translation costs.

They would also be "closer" than the European Court of Justice to the national legal system in which the cases were referred. The mounting costs and delay in hearing more and more Community cases has placed enormous pressure on the ECJ. This has not been helped by some countries, notably Italy, the Netherlands and Greece, bringing "barmy" cases which have not been properly prepared. This said, Nicholas Green QC, chairman of the Bar European Group, had led senior ECJ judges to conclude that it would be better for member states to hear more of their own cases. One of the court's proposals for immediate change is a "clarification" procedure whereby the ECJ can ask the domestic court to make it clearer what is asking.

In a stark warning about the court's future ability to deal with its increasing case-load, ECJ president, Gil Carlos Rodrguez Iglesias, said that "recent institutional developments risk further worsening the current state of the community system of law".

Mr Rodrguez Iglesias, the court's most senior judge, identified an existing backlog of cases as well as imminent changes which would stimulate future litigation. These included the third stage of the European Monetary Union and the enlargement of the community to a number of former eastern bloc countries.

He said there was already a "dangerous trend towards a structural imbalance between the volume of incoming cases and the capacity of the institution to deal with them." In 1990 there were just 145 cases before the ECJ - last year that number had risen to over one thousand.

There is a two-year delay for cases to come before the ECJ after referral from a domestic court. These figures are expected to worsen in the next three years as the court is asked to tackle problems relating to judicial and police co-operation across member states and more freedom of movement cases as refugees flood in from the Balkans crisis.

An increasing administrative burden is the need to translate every key document into every language of the community. The ECJ proposes to introduce a fast-track system for hearing cases and implementing a case-filtering procedures.