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‘Law courts need to move into digital age’

Morten Kjaerum, director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Morten Kjaerum, director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Judicial reform will mean updating law courts to the digital age and looking to countries that once formed part of the Soviet bloc for inspiration, according to the director of the EU’s specialised human rights agency.

Detention is a drastic step and less intrusive approaches exist

Morten Kjaerum, EU Agency for Fundamental Rights director, believes archaic working practices are often to blame for court cases that drag on interminably.

“Very often, the entire process can be streamlined simply by switching to modern technology. Allow lawyers to register cases online, get rid of paperwork in favour of electronic systems and get applicants to fill in a lot of the basic information themselves. All this stuff works,” Mr Kjaerum said.

And while many western European states were reluctant to reform systems that dated back several decades, newer EU member states seemed more open to change.

“It’s the Eastern European member states that are leading the way. Countries like Poland, Slovenia and Estonia have modernised their judicial systems with very convincing results. They’re undoubtedly models of good practice.”

Inaugurated in 2007, the agency Mr Kjaerum heads is the first human rights institution of the 21st century. Its job is to collect and assess data about human rights issues across member states.

Across the EU, equality bodies such as the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality have been established to help minorities facing discrimination. But things were not working as they should, Mr Kjaerum conceded.

“We interviewed 25,000 people coming from ethnic minorities across all 27 member states. Of those who had been victims of hate crime, 80 per cent couldn’t name a single organisation that could help them. And 70 to 80 per cent said they just didn’t trust the police. Those are two massive problems.”

Following the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, member states have embarked on a concerted drive to further integrate policing across EU jurisdictions. Mr Kjaerum said he had no problem with this, “provided there’s a solid rights framework underpinning it all”.

That solid framework is now typified by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which the Lisbon Treaty turned into a legally binding text.

In effect, this means European commissioners can open infringement proceedings against member states, which have violated the charter when implementing EU directives.

“Traditionally, human rights issues were always won on the strength of one’s argument because enforcement mechanisms didn’t exist. But, now, countries can face infringement proceedings if they breach the charter.”

France and Hungary have both ended up in the dock because of this mechanism – France for its treatment of Roma, Hungary for concerns about judicial independence – and Mr Kjaerum argued the new approach would prove to be a sea change for human rights.

Even, so, disagreements existed, he acknowledged. Malta’s policy of forcibly detaining all asylum seekers upon arrival continued to worry him, he said.

“Detention is a drastic step and less intrusive approaches exist, with open centres that strike a balance between security and human rights concerns. The authorities here listened to my ideas but, from what I gather, there’s a political consensus on detention for the moment. And that was made clear to me.”

Proposals to enforce gender quotas within corporate boardrooms have also prompted much debate. Mr Kjaerum said he backed the idea and used his native Denmark to illustrate his point.

“Some years ago, the Danish Government redrew municipal boundaries and over 100 directorship posts were made available. How many women got the post? Two.

“When I saw that, I became pro quotas. Two out of a 100 in a country that’s meant to be among the most gender equal in Europe... it’s just not acceptable. How much longer should we wait? I’m running out of patience.”

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