On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I thank the House for making time available to discuss the motion relating to the exercise by the State of our option to take part in the adoption and application of the proposal for a decision of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Council Decision 2001/470/EC establishing a European judicial network in civil and commercial matters. The Minister is conscious of the fact that the deadlines are very tight and, for that reason, the co-operation of the House on today's discussion is much appreciated. Senators will be aware that, as this is a measure to which the fourth protocol of the Amsterdam treaty applies, we have a three-month period within which to notify the President of the Council of our intention to opt into any discussions from the beginning. That period expires this week.
Members of the House will be familiar with motions of the type under consideration, given that numerous similar motions have come to the House for approval. This reflects the fact that there is a lot of activity in the area of civil law co-operation within the EU forum. On previous occasions, Senators have made very useful observations on the proposals brought before them and, while our time today is limited, I look forward to the comments of those who contribute to the debate on the motion.
The proposed decision was presented as part of a general programme of measures in the field of judicial co-operation in civil matters where those matters have cross-border implications and are seen as necessary for the proper functioning of the Internal Market. It amends a 2001 decision, which we have already opted into, which established a European judicial network geared primarily towards establishing an information system among member states with regard to judicial co-operation in the civil sphere. The amending proposal follows on from a Commission study published in 2006 which suggested that the role of the network needed to be enhanced given the number of Community instruments in the civil justice area which have come into effect since 2001 and which will come into effect in the near future. The proposed amendments are intended to facilitate the network in dealing with an increasing volume of requests for information and co-operation.
Before dealing with the specific elements of the amending proposal, I will speak briefly about the network as it operates at present. Some information about funding will also be given. The network consists of contact points designated by member states, central bodies and authorities who have specific functions under various Community and international instruments to which the member states are parties, and any other judicial or administrative authority with responsibility for judicial co-operation in civil and commercial matters and whose membership is considered useful by the member state to which it belongs. In Ireland, the Courts Service has been designated as the contact point for the purposes of the 2001 decision.
Among the network's activities is ensuring the effective and practical application of existing Community instruments and the establishment of an information system for the public on civil law co-operation within the EU. The latter activity has resulted in the creation of a website which has been on-line since March 2003. The network meets regularly and the meetings are organised, chaired and serviced by the European Commission. They provide an opportunity for the sharing of experience with regard to the operation of Community instruments in the area of civil law. They have also led to the publication of a number of practice guides intended to assist in the application of these instruments, covering areas such as the taking of evidence and the European enforcement order regulation. Funding is provided by the Civil Justice funding programme, a specific objective of which is to facilitate the operation of the network. Ireland notified its intention to participate in the adoption and application of that programme in 2005, and it was adopted in 2007. It is envisaged that funding of the order of €3 million will be available for the running of the network, including its website, in 2009 and in each year for the duration of the programme, which runs until December 2013.
One of the more significant elements of the amending decision is the proposal to open up the network to the legal professions directly concerned with civil judicial co-operation and directly involved in the administration of justice. It is envisaged that their participation will bring added value to legal practice in the European Union and enable the network to achieve its objectives more effectively. For the purposes of this proposal, "the legal professions concerned" means only those which participate directly in the concrete application of Community and international instruments concerning civil justice in the course of judicial or extra-judicial proceedings. In Ireland, this essentially means barristers and solicitors. In other countries, professions such as notaries and bailiffs are also involved. The proposal does not provide for direct access to the network for individual members of the legal professions. Under its terms, only the professional associations representing the different legal professions in each member state at national level would be invited to become members.
The element of the draft decision concerning effective access to justice for the public reflects the emphasis placed by the Hague programme on improving such access. In a number of Community instruments adopted to date there is provision for measures to be taken to inform the public of their content, and the network is seen as a key player in ensuring such provision. For example, provisions of this kind are included in the regulations establishing a European order for payment procedure and a European small claims procedure, both of which are due to enter into force within a matter of months. The draft decision contains a new article which specifies that the contact points are to inform the public directly about relevant Community and international instruments. The Commission's role in the network's public information system has also been addressed in more concrete terms. The Commission will have responsibility for translating into the official languages of the Community information on the relevant aspects of Community law and procedures, including Community case law, as well as translation of the system's general pages.
A further element of the proposal is designed to provide additional clarity concerning the role of the contact points. Obviously, this is most relevant where a member state designates more than one contact point. Provision is also made for closer co-operation between the judiciary and the contact point in member states where that state has chosen to appoint a person other than a judge as contact point. The proposal also addresses the relationship between the contact points and the central authorities who have responsibilities under EU and international instruments, and aims to promote the development of exchanges of views and regular contact between these two categories of network member in the member states. It also deals with the expeditious processing of requests for judicial co-operation within the network. A further new element is the idea that the contact points will present a two-yearly report on their activities. In the expeditious processing of requests, the network has already demonstrated that it has the capacity to be more effective in this regard than other, more traditional, co-operation structures.
Other elements of the proposal include the arrangements for the Commission to keep a secure electronic register of exchanges of judicial co-operation between contact points, and to supply the network, on a regular basis, with statistics on requests for judicial co-operation. It is also proposed that the network will be given an additional task so that in the future it can play a key role in informing the courts and authorities, which are responsible for a case, about the content of foreign law, where the law of another member state is applicable to the case in question.
A number of technical amendments to the 2001 decision are proposed, one of which will increase the number of representatives which member states are allowed to send to contact point meetings. This means that where specific issues are to be discussed at meetings, member states will be able to include more experts in their delegations and thus ensure a more informed discussion takes place. It is also proposed that provision be made for the establishment of exchanges and co-operation between the network and other networks that facilitate co-operation between judicial systems or access to justice. Examples of such networks include the Hague Conference on International Private Law, which the Community joined in April 2007, the European Consumer Centres Network, and a Latin American international judicial co-operation network in which Spain and Portugal already participate.
Discussion on the draft decision has only just begun and during the negotiation process changes may be made to reflect the individual concerns and needs of the participating member states. In this context, because of the terms of its Protocol to the Treaty of Amsterdam, Denmark is not participating in the adoption and application of this decision. However, the draft decision will continue to facilitate the representation of Denmark at meetings of the network. The decision also provides that representatives of accession countries and candidate countries may be invited to attend network meetings as observers, as may representatives of countries that are parties to the Lugano Convention on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters.
The UK has already given notice of its intention to participate in the adoption and application of this decision. It is the Government's view that it is important that Ireland responds positively to the tabling of this proposal by exercising the right which we have to opt into discussions at an early date. On behalf of the Minister, I very much hope the House will support the proposal that Ireland opts into the discussions on this decision and I thank Senators for making time available to facilitate our participation in the negotiations on this instrument. Obviously, given our participation in the underlying 2001 decision, it makes sense for us to opt into this amending proposal.