European governments must drop their budget concerns and ensure special protection for children facing charges in a police station or before a judge," said the European Socialists and Democrats today in Brussels, following the adoption by the European Parliament committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs of a set of draft provisions to strengthen minor safeguards in criminal proceedings.
According to the Commission's estimates, more than 1 million children are involved in criminal proceedings in the European Union each year, and the situation varies across European countries. In the UK, for example, children can be charged with offences at 10 years old.
Currently, only six member states (Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg and Slovakia) have dedicated juvenile prosecution services and nine member states do not even have juvenile courts. Special training for judges and lawyers who are in contact with children in their work is compulsory in only 12 member states. In some member states, there is no legal obligation for children to be assisted by a lawyer; in others, it is available only in the courts, but not in police stations; and in certain countries, the decision is up to the relevant court.
According to the draft provisions backed today by the MEPs, children will always have to be assisted by a lawyer, right from the first charges, if necessary. Legal assistance will be a mandatory right which cannot be waived in any circumstances
Moreover, interviews with children during the investigation will have to be recorded, and they will also be given the right to contact their parents and be assisted by them. In case of arrest, children will have to be held separately from adults. Finally, criminal proceedings involving minors must be held behind closed doors to protect them from the media and stigmatisation.
Caterina Chinnici, former judge and S&D MEP who drafted these proposals on behalf of the European Parliament, said:
"Today's vote is a first important step towards setting minimum common rules ensuring a fair trial for children at all stages of the criminal investigation and proceedings.
"The two main objectives put forward by our proposals: the best interests of the child and enhancing the level of procedural safeguards for child suspects, in particular with regard to the access to a lawyer."
Tanja Fajon, S&D MEP and vice-president, said:
"These provisions do not mean that minors will not be held accountable for their misconduct, as established in their national laws. However, we cannot pretend that a 12-year-old child can defend himself as an adult could when confronting a police officer or a prosecutor. It would be totally unfair and also dangerous; therefore, we want to ensure that their safeguards are strengthened in consideration of their young age and vulnerability."