Fair trials for children: Parliament and Council strike deal on new directive with a "catalogue of rights"
New rules to ensure that children who are suspected or accused of a crime are able to understand and follow the proceedings, to enable them to exercise their right to a fair trial, to prevent re-offending and foster their social integration were provisionally agreed by Parliament and Council negotiators on Tuesday evening.
An estimated one million children come into formal contact with the police and judiciary in the EU each year (i.e. 12% of the total EU population facing criminal justice). However, their legal protection varies from country to country.
"This agreement between the European Parliament and the Council is an important step in the creation of a European judicial area and in the development of a fairer and more effective model of juvenile justice, also in view of the social reintegration and prevention of recidivism of children involved in criminal proceedings", said Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee rapporteur and lead negotiator on the proposal, Caterina Chinnici (S&D, IT).
"Despite the large number of international instruments in this area, there was no, to date, a binding text defining what constitutes a ‘fair trial’ for children: this directive will provide a structured catalogue of rights for suspected or accused children, based on a set of minimum, interconnected standards aimed to meet the specific needs of children at all stages in criminal proceedings", Ms Chinnici stressed.
"At the end of a tough round of negotiations, we also succeeded in introducing, among other important rights, the crucial principle of mandatory assistance by a lawyer for children. For all these reasons, we are very proud of this directive and we hope that it will come into force at the earliest possible time", she added.
The deal on the text of the directive was reached in the ninth "trilogue” (three-way talks between Parliament, Council and Commission negotiators) on Tuesday evening.
Assistance by a lawyer
During the negotiations, MEPs sought to strengthen the rules on assistance by a lawyer and to limit the derogations to this obligation, since children, as vulnerable persons, are not always able to fully understand and follow criminal proceedings. MEPs also inserted provisions throughout the text to ensure that "the child's best interests are always a primary consideration".
Other fair trial safeguards
Other safeguards for children (i.e. persons under the age of 18) included in the agreed text are, for example:
- the right to be promptly informed about their rights and about general aspects of the conduct of the proceedings;
- information shall also be provided to the holder of parental responsibility or another appropriate adult, nominated by the child and accepted as such by the competent authority; children shall have the right to be accompanied by that person during court hearings in which they are involved and, under certain conditions, also during other stages of the proceedings, e.g. during police questioning;
- the right to be individually assessed by qualified personnel - the assessment shall in particular take into account the personality and maturity of the child, their economic, social and family background, as well as any specific vulnerabilities of the child;
- children who are deprived of liberty shall have the right to a medical examination without undue delay, which shall be as non-invasive as possible;
- deprivation of liberty, in particular detention, shall only be imposed as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. Member states shall ensure that, wherever possible, the competent authorities shall have recourse to alternative measures instead of detention;
- children who are kept in police-custody shall be held separately from adults, unless it is considered in the child's best interests not to do so;
- the right to protection of privacy during the criminal proceedings, including the option of having court hearings involving children held in the absence of the public.
The agreement on the new directive still needs to be approved by the Civil Liberties Committee and by Parliament as a whole early next year.
Once the directive has been formally approved by both Parliament and the Council, member states will have 36 months (three years) from the date of its publication in the EU Official Journal to transpose it into national law.
The UK and Ireland have opted out of adopting this directive and will not be bound by it, while Denmark has a blanket opt-out for justice and home affairs legislation.
Note to editors
This draft directive is part of a package of proposals to further strengthen procedural rights for citizens in criminal proceedings. The package includes a proposal on the presumption of innocence (a deal was endorsed by the Civil Liberties Committee on 10 November) and another covering legal aid (trilogues are ongoing).
The previous Parliament passed three other EU laws that are part of a roadmap for strengthening procedural rights: a directive on the right to interpretation and translation, a directive on the right to information and a directive on the right of access to a lawyer.
Procedure: co-decision (ordinary legislative procedure), 1st reading agreement