Around 1.4 million work in the legal industry in the EU, ranging from judges and prosecutors to lawyers, bailiffs and court staff.
Research shows that many of them know little about EU law or how the EU’s legal system operates. The European Commission wants to rectify that, and last year set itself a target that would see at least half of those 1.4 million professionals participate in European judicial training at local, national or European level by 2020. It also wants all legal practitioners to have at least one week’s training in EU law during their careers.
The training it has in mind could take place during initial legal education or as part of life-long learning. It would cover EU legislation, including substantive and procedural law, together with the corresponding case law of the European Court of Justice. There should also be instruction in national judicial systems and language training.
At present, it is hard to know how many legal practitioners are being trained in these aspects of EU law, and a new reporting process is planned to accompany the Commission target. The first results are due in the second half of 2012, at which point it will be possible to see just how ambitious the target is.
A partial insight comes in a recently published survey of the judicial professions, carried out for the European Parliament by the Academy of European Law (ERA) and the European Judicial Training Network (EJTN). This found that while almost all new entrants studied EU law as part of their degree, only a minority of older professionals had dealt with EU law, the European Convention on Human Rights or another EU member state’s law during their university studies.
After university, there is a period of initial training, details of which vary from country to country, and the survey found that about half of current trainees cover EU law. The numbers change again when it comes to continuing education. Just over half of judges and prosecutors responding had received training in EU or another member state’s law, but only one-third had done so in the past three years, the period in which the Treaty of Lisbon came into force, substantially reforming the way in which the EU operates.
The figures begin to get worrying when legal practitioners are asked what they know about EU law. As many as 32% of judges responding to the survey said they had little or no knowledge of when to apply EU law directly, and only 20% said they knew very well when to do so. Forty per cent said they had little or no knowledge of when a question could (or should) be referred to the European Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling, and 60% were in the dark about how to do so.
Training judges and prosecutors is the Commission’s top priority, since they are responsible for enforcing and maintaining respect for EU law. The most significant obstacle is the organisation of the justice system itself. “In theory everyone agrees that this is part of their professional activities, but in practice there is always a pressing need to work with all the cases on their desks,” says Wolfgang Heusel, the director of the ERA. “The time left for training is very scarce.”
Meeting the Commission target will be the responsibility of national bodies such as governments, judiciary councils, professional bodies and judicial training institutions. The Commission is urging them to make a commitment to integrate EU law into their training programmes and to increase the volume of courses and participants.
However, there will be some EU funding for transnational training projects, such as those provided by ERA. Heusel expects his organisation to carry out more face-to-face training, while developing complementary distance-learning tools. “If you want to achieve higher numbers, you will have to use electronic training modules much more than before,” he says.
There are also plans to extend the exchange programme run by the EJTN, an umbrella body for national institutions offering judicial training. “The procedure allows a magistrate, a judge or a public prosecutor, from one member state to go to another, normally for a period of two weeks, where he or she is hosted by a colleague and becomes familiar with their work,” says Luis Pereira, the organisation’s secretary general. As well as increasing knowledge, the idea is to build mutual trust and support the principle of mutual recognition.
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Some 920 exchanges took place in 2011, which the Commission wants to push up to 1,200 exchanges per year. Plans are also under way to develop an exchange programme tailored to the needs of newly qualified judges and prosecutors. “This would also allow people to have exchanges with different goals throughout their professional lives,” Pereira says.
Meanwhile, the Commission is planning to develop training material to fill specific gaps and make it freely available to judicial trainers across Europe. A first project, resulting in four modules on EU environmental law, will be released on the European e-Justice Portal in the coming weeks.
Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.