Should we trust the Euro-judges?

A single system of justice for the EU is being debated. But lawyers fear human rights are at risk. By Robert Verkaik
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The case of Bridget Seisay, the British woman who spent eight months in a Belgium jail following false allegations of trafficking in human beings, has cast serious doubt over the fairness of one of Europe's more highly respected justice systems.

The case of Bridget Seisay, the British woman who spent eight months in a Belgium jail following false allegations of trafficking in human beings, has cast serious doubt over the fairness of one of Europe's more highly respected justice systems.

Ms Seisay was freed this year from a three-year prison sentence for trying to smuggle another woman into Britain on a false passport. What alarmed British lawyers was that though her case was heard by six different Belgium judges, not one recognised the weakness of the evidence against her.

Last week, Europe's justice ministers met in Tampere, Finland, for what many believe could be the first step towards creating a single European legal system. But cases like that of 30-year-old Ms Seisay raise concerns about how far we should go in unifying European laws. Human rights lawyers argue that some EU countries' criminal justice systems simply do not have the checks and balances required to protect citizens from miscarriages of justice. Yet Tony Blair, Robin Cook and Jack Straw have all backed a number of key reforms that are aimed at harmonising certain aspects of Europe's legal systems.

Ms Seisay, who is originally from Sierra Leone, was arrested at the Eurostar rail terminal in Brussels last November as she accompanied a female acquaintance boarding the train to London.

Her British passport was in order but her companion, it transpired, was travelling with false documents. Ms Seisay was arrested, and charged with attempting to smuggle her acquaintance into Britain. The other woman was later released without charge.

Ms Seisay had met her travelling companion during a weekend in Bonn with her partner's cousin, Umaru Wurie, the Sierra Leonean Ambassador to Germany. Ms Seisay's MP, Simon Hughes, and the Euro MP Richard Balfe, expressed concern and the Belgian Ambassador to the UK intervened, recommending that the case be heard as soon as possible.

Ms Seisay is not alone. This year two British lorry drivers were detained by the Belgian police in questionable circumstances. One of the cases, concerning driver Eddie Bellfield, demonstrates just how little EU criminal justice systems are working together in Europe. Mr Bellfield is still being held in a German jail accused of cigarette-smuggling, charges of which he has already been cleared by British Customs.

He was handed over to Germany, after an extradition request by the German authorities. "This shows that at this level Europe's prosecuting authorities are not co-operating with each other. No one wants to take responsibility," says Stephen Jakobi, director of Fair Trials Abroad.

Mr Jakobi claims that miscarriages of justice are commonplace in Belgium because junior judges, who are politically appointed, preside over serious cases. "Some of them don't even understand the first principle of the European Convention of Human Rights, which is that the prosecution must prove its case."

Earlier this year Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, who has proposed many of the most radical changes to be raised at the Tampere summit, compared the changes proposed in Finland to the creation of the single European economic market, 42 years ago. He made the comparison in his evidence to the House of Lords committee, which earlier this year supported a raft of proposals put forward by the Home Office.

The overall intention behind the Tampere reforms is to create a "European legal space" in which EU citizens can expect equal treatment before all member states' courts.

EU ministers propose to abolish extradition procedures between EU countries, and a "fast track" system to allow EU citizens to bring compensation claims against each other in all EU courts.

The Home Office is also proposing the mutual recognition of all European court judgments, a new Euro-arrest warrant, and a "Euro just" office staffed by lawyers trained to prosecute serious crime. There are further plans for a police staff training college to train European police officers using the new laws, as well as a Europe-wide criminal injuries compensation scheme based on the UK system.

But many lawyers believe that a single European legal system would be unworkable. Stephen Jakobi has serious concerns about the impact of many of the proposals. He says: "These represent the greatest threat to European civil liberties in the last 50 years."

Fair Trials Abroad, the only organisation with a Europe-wide remit to monitor criminal justice systems, can highlight alarming disparities.

Mr Jakobi identifies Greece, Portugal, Spain and Belgium as countries with particular problems. He says many of these countries' legal systems have problems with corruption in the judiciary, and poor legal representation before the criminal courts. Last year a monitoring system set up by the Council of Europe also revealed political interference and corruption in the judiciaries of some of these countries.

Mr Jakobi says: "While we would generally dismiss such problems as corruption as being serious factors in the judicial systems of the EU at present, concern must be expressed at the political influence in the appointment of judges in some member states." There is also growing concern over the very low salaries paid to examining magistrates in some countries. Fair Trials claims that the lack of financial resources devoted to criminal justice in some EU countries is "intolerable", and amounts to governmental denial of human rights.

Mr Jakobi said that there were a worrying number of cases where defendants are convicted in "defiance of the assumption of innocence", with little or no evidence against them. He said that without proper balances set against the proposed powers, more people are likely to experience injustice. Fair Trials Abroad recommends the introduction of Euro-bail, as a check against the proposed Euro arrest warrant.

European ministers appear to have taken account of some of these concerns. The finalised proposals coming out of Tampere include wider availability of legal aid in Europe for criminal cases, and a minimum standard for interpreters - whose skills vary greatly.

The European governments also supported a "draft charter of fundamental rights", to protect EU citizens in whichever country's justice system they were subject.But since the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) is already estab- lished, and is supposed to fulfil that role, this was an idea that baffled some lawyers. "Wouldn't it be better to ensure that the ECHR is working properly rather than creating a new charter?" asks Mr Jakobi.

Ms Seisay is not the only Briton to have suffered an injustice at the hands of an EU legal system. Fair Trials Abroad is fighting on behalf of dozens of other Britons who are currently in prisons all over Europe.