Pictured: Andrew Symeou, whose life was turned upside by extradition to Greece
It is nearly ten years since the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) came into force. During this time it has undoubtedly proved its benefits for fighting cross-border crime, with the high-profile arrest and return of Osman Hussain, one of the 7/7 bombers, being a key example. But today, after numerous reviews, inquiries and debates, all backing the case for reform, Theresa May finally recognised that, while the UK must work with the rest of Europe to tackle crime (and therefore look to remain a part of the EAW), the benefits of this fast-track extradition system must be accompanied by new safeguards for the rights of the people subject to it.
A major focus of the announcement was the promise to end UK courts extraditing people for minor crimes. Certain EU countries have systematically issued Arrest Warrants for minor offences causing significant injustice for people like our clients, Natalia Gorczowska and Jacek Jaskolski, as well as a huge financial burden for Member States. Despite the intense criticism of this, both within the EU institutions and across Member States, until recently there has been little evidence of willingness in the European institutions to review the EU law which created the EAW to deal with this problem. It is therefore hugely encouraging to hear the Home Secretary's plans to take the bull by the horns at a domestic level and introduce new powers for judges to refuse extradition for minor crimes.
A further concern addressed by the Home Secretary is the excessive periods of pre-trial detention people are being subjected to when they are extradited before the country is ready to try the case. The most notable example is the case of Andrew Symeou, referred to today by the Home Secretary. Sadly, despite our best efforts, Andrew was extradited to Greece and detained in appalling prison conditions for 10 months, kept in Greece on bail for a further 9 months before eventually being cleared of any wrong-doing. Andrew discusses the devastating impact on him and his family in the video below.
The Home Secretary has promised to amend the Extradition Act to prevent the removal of anyone under an EAW before the decision has been made to charge and try the person. This should help to prevent any repeat of the unacceptable and unnecessary ordeal suffered by Andrew. The confirmation that the UK will also implement the European Supervision Order - to allow people to be bailed back to their own country while awaiting trial - is also welcome. This could have allowed Andrew to return to the UK and to get on with his life.
Amid the list of further protections which Mrs May promised to introduce was one which will prevent the recurrence of situations faced by people like Michael Binnington and Luke Atkinson, extradited to Cyprus to serve a sentence there only to be returned to the UK six months later to serve the remainder of the time in a British prison. This merry-go-round was hugely expensive and caused unnecessary suffering for Michael and Luke. It has long been Fair Trials' view that, in such cases, instead of extradition, people should be able to serve their sentence in the UK.
The Home Secretary's use of principle, policy and pragmatism today is to be celebrated. It is, however, disappointing that there has yet to be any indication about whether the UK will opt-in to another crucial measure - the recently agreed Directive on the right of access to a lawyer in criminal proceedings. Many people take for granted that they would have proper access to a lawyer if they arrested and threatened with a prison sentence. Sadly, this is not the case in all 28 EU countries and this new Directive could help to address this. It is hard to reconcile the Home Secretary's commitment to increasing the protections available to people affected by EU justice measures like the EAW, with the continued failure to opt into this new law.
The UK can and should lead the way in improving fair trials standards across Europe. I hope that today's announcement marks the start of a new trend for the UK supporting EU measures which ensure that Europe works together to improve standards of criminal justice and leads the way in improving measures which undermine them.