Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I have pleasure in presenting the report of the European Union Committee, which forms the subject of the Question I put to the Government in this short debate. The committee has received the Government’s formal response and welcomes the opportunity to press them on points raised in the report in the light of recent developments. I am grateful to the Members of the Justice and Institutions Sub-Committee, our Clerk, advisers and witnesses, who gave both oral and written evidence.
We embarked on our inquiry, first, because of the extension of the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice into the area of freedom, justice and security as a result of the Lisbon treaty, and the potential work that that may create. Secondly, there is the potential impact of the expansion of the European Union from 15 to 27 member states, and the Court's published analysis of its workload, which shows an average time of more than 33 months for a competition case before the General Court.
For the record, since all noble Lords participating in the debate are aware of the position, I will make it clear that the Court of Justice of the European Union comprises three courts: the Court of Justice, the General Court and the Civil Service Tribunal. Any reference that I make in this debate to the Court of Justice refers to the first and highest court, not the Court of Justice of the European Union. For the benefit of too many media commentators, none of them has anything to do with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Our evidence was drawn from professional bodies, a former advocate-general, representatives of the Commission and the Attorney-General. Discussions were held in Luxembourg at the Court with the three United Kingdom judges serving within the three courts of the Court of Justice of the European Union and with the president of the General Court.
May I make two general comments which relate to the Court of Justice of the European Union as a whole before turning to the separate courts? First, the Union is based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. The Court of Justice is a vital institution for the proper functioning of the Union. For example, while some question some aspects of European Union policy, without the Court we have nothing to buttress the operation of the single market, which is so much more complicated than a trade deal and is essential for our interests.
Secondly, the amount of money is quite small. Of a 2011 European Union budget of €126,527 million, the cost of the Court is just over a quarter of 1 per cent. It is often assumed that the need for translation is the cause of cost and delay. This was not our conclusion. Of course translation has its cost, but not everything is automatically translated into the 23 official languages. Everything is translated into French, which is the working language of the Court. This is the case for historical reasons and some have suggested that an additional language be added, but to add another would only add cost.
In the Court of Justice, which deals with preliminary references on points of European law referred from national courts, the reference is sent out to all member states in their language for their observations. The judgment in each case is also translated, which is not unreasonable given that the judgment is of universal application to the Union and everyone in all member states should be able to read it in their own language. Contrary again to much popular belief, using other languages is not a luxury, as not everyone everywhere speaks English or, for that matter, French or German. In the case of the General Court and the Civil Service Tribunal, the language regime is much more restricted and may only be the language of the Court and the parties, and only judgments of particular interest are the subject of translation into all official languages.
Turning to the individual courts, we looked first at the Court of Justice, which may be described as the supreme court of the European Union. The majority of its workload relates to preliminary references to which I have already referred. The number of judges is laid down in the treaty—one per member state—and they are assisted by advocates-general, who give the Court a written opinion which is not binding. The number of advocates-general may be increased by unanimity without treaty change and we recommend that this be done to assist the Court in increasing the speed at which cases are dealt with. We believe that the Court of Justice faces a crisis in its workload following the expansion of membership and the expansion of its jurisdiction into freedom, justice and security.
The Court of Justice has had a good record in managing its workload in the past, but in this it was helped by an automatic increase in the number of judges following enlargement but that predated the expansion of jurisdiction and the work now flowing from enlargement. The General Court, however, is where we believe that the problem lies. The General Court deals with almost all the cases brought against the institutions and agencies of the European Union. These are often complex, involving both written and oral evidence. We found that the General Court has significant problems in managing its current and likely future workload.
We proposed a number of solutions. We accepted that there may be a case for better case management but we were of the opinion that that would not solve the essential problem. We also gave consideration to the creation of additional specialist chambers similar to the model of the Civil Service Tribunal, but we rejected this as a long-term solution. The Civil Service Tribunal is a special case dealing with internal European Union staff matters. Its significance is quite different from that of the Court of Justice and the General Court. It has been a success and we found no reason to recommend any changes. But in our opinion it is not the right model to follow for the General Court. We agree with the Luxembourg judges that more specialist tribunals would diminish the character of the Court as a general court combining a mixed expertise. Those judges appointed to the tribunals would have reduced or few opportunities to sit in the General Court and, similarly, the judges of the General Court would have few opportunities to sit in the tribunals.
Additional judges can be appointed to the General Court without treaty change, and this in our opinion is the answer to the problem. Without specifying a particular number, we suggested an increase of a third. The Government in their written response do not seem convinced that the problem is as serious as we believe and certainly do not warm to the idea of more judges other than in a specialist tribunal.
Since we reported, matters have moved on and the committee currently holds under scrutiny three proposals for reform of the Court of Justice of the EU. The first is a proposal from the Court: to create within its number a vice-president; to amend the rules relating to the composition of the grand chamber; to abolish the rule requiring the reading of the judge rapporteur’s report at the oral hearing; and to increase the General Court judges from 27 to 39. There is a second proposal for the revision of the Court of Justice rules of procedure to take account of changes of workload. Thirdly, there is a draft regulation to allow the appointment of temporary judges drawn from the ranks of retired judges to assist the Civil Service Tribunal, which seems to us to be eminently sensible and an economic way of dealing with the short-term problem. We have welcomed all these but the Government seem to lack some enthusiasm, save for the revision of the rules of procedure.
While we have the original response to our report, in the light of recent developments will the Government please give active and urgent consideration to increasing the number of judges in the General Court? If not, what is their alternative solution, bearing in mind that even specialist tribunals, which we do not favour, will cost money? Will the Government also consider the recommendation in our report that, before approving legislation, an assessment of the possible impact of such legislation on the Court of Justice of the European Union should be undertaken?
Lastly, will the Government also take account of the observations of Sir Konrad Schiemann which is referred to in Appendix 4 of the report, in which he said:
“The Court had to interpret legislation which had been designed by politicians whose political priority was the achievement of a formula, if necessary at the expense of a clear formula. Where the original legislation was imprecise, the Court was required to intervene. This was often the case with Directives, but could also be seen in the Treaties themselves”.
As so often when governments look to others to solve the problems, this could be an example of where the Council could assist by remembering that, in many instances, the legislative proposals before them are indeed just that, draft legislation, and should be approved on the basis not just that there is political agreement but that they represent legal certainty.
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as a solicitor-advocate in practice in Scotland, and from time to time my practice involves cases which may end up in the European courts. I am very pleased to have been a member of the sub-committee which undertook this investigation and I want first of all to pay tribute to our chairman in guiding us through what I believe was a very good report with a deftness of touch, and also to the staff, the clerks and the legal advisers who gave excellent advice.
I want to address the issue of judges and resources in the courts. In a time of austerity, for a lawyer to make a plea for more resources and more judges in a court may sound like special pleading if not perverse. To ask for such resources for European institutions is always asking for trouble. In the popular mind, a European court is one that interferes with British interests, perhaps to the detriment of parliamentary sovereignty. The failure in the popular mind to distinguish clearly between the European Court of Human Rights on the one hand and the Court of Justice of the European Union on the other makes the task even more difficult. Yet it is apparent from our report that the delays in the Court process as a result of the situation that now faces the Court are a significant impediment to economic activity and the achievement of the goals of the European Union.
The committee was particularly concerned about the workload of the General Court, which deals with cases that turn crucially on the assessment of often large amounts of factual material, including competition cases where challenges to the decisions of the Commission, which themselves run into 600 pages, may generate files that contain 20,000 pages or more. Competition cases now represent 10 per cent of the workload of the General Court, and the average turnaround for all cases, including competition cases, is 33 months. As the CBI has said, an average turnaround of 33 months in competition cases is simply unacceptable. It cites the particular example of the ICI case which, exceptionally, took over nine years to be resolved.
The move to have decisions under the EU regulation on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals—the so-called REACH regime—from the European Chemicals Agency subject to appeal in the General Court will undoubtedly increase pressure on that court. One estimate suggests that there may be over 2 million applications to the European Chemicals Agency, and there is real concern that the General Court may be overwhelmed as a result.
One way of helping to ease this is by the creation of specialist tribunals taking some of the work—trade marks have been suggested—away from the General Court. As we have already heard, the committee considered that specialist chambers were a more efficient way of proceeding because they would allow judges to be redeployed within the Court structure to cope with peaks and troughs. A specialist tribunal would simply increase the rigidity of the system without gaining any flexibility.
In my submission, we cannot get away from the need to increase the number of judges in the General Court. To that extent, I was pleased to see the response from the Government in the letter of 4 July to the chairman of the European Union Committee. The Minister, Mr Lidington, said that the Government were working actively with other members discussing the size of the judiciary in the General Court. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made on that issue?
Turning to the Court of Justice, we believe that there are problems ahead. It is true that the present workload is being coped with, but we saw a crisis looming because of the number of new cases that are likely to come forward from the new states following enlargement and the new jurisdiction in freedom, security and justice. It is clear that these pressures are going to be there, and I was disappointed to see in the same response that the Minister is not convinced that the Court of Justice is facing an imminent crisis without any real specification of that. What evidence does the Minister have to counter that of the committee that the Court of Justice is indeed facing a crisis? How imminent it is may be a matter of conjecture, but does he agree with the committee that something needs to be done, and done soon, otherwise we will face further problems?
I believe that this is a good report that will set a benchmark for the future of the Court if the Government act in conjunction with other member states. I will be pleased to hear in general what the Government’s response is to this report.
My Lords, I am sure the whole House will be particularly grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd, for asking for certain clarifications, bearing in mind his authority and activity as a representational corporate and commercial lawyer helping clients dealing with these matters, as well as for his general views in the sub-committee of which I am also a member. As he said, we are deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, for being chairman of the committee and for having launched and taken the initiative on this report. We had an enormous amount of expert advice and guidance from our officials and special advisers, and I warmly thank them for it. That set the tone for us to do what I thought was a very thorough and profound report, which was not too long, as some of these reports are on these occasions.
I hope that when he replies the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, will reassure us on some of the points of confusion about the imminent crisis that may be looming for the ECJ. However, there is a difference of views on that. As we indicated, there is more likely to be agreement in this short debate about crisis in the General Court as a result of its excessive workload and the need for that to be taken care of. Unlike the more supreme, higher level, intellectual work of the Court of Justice, dealing with treaty matters and the support or otherwise of legislation in the European framework, the General Court is the coalface of these judicial proceedings in the European Union.
We know what kind of reception Europe gets in the British press. I hope that the situation will be a little easier now after the hacking scandal. There may be no connection at all, but you never know. There might be a bit of luck in that and most, though not all, of the British press might be more serious about reporting and carrying stories about European institutions. The wicked Commission is attacked far more often than the European Court of Justice because the European Court of Justice is harder to explain to the ordinary reader. I am not criticising the ordinary reader; it is just one of those things with highfaluting, high-level courts. However, it is essential that there should be more explanation because it is embarrassing when people get the Council of Europe mixed up with the European Union.
Despite the workload problems and the excessive time taken to deal with cases, the European Court of Justice does a very good job on behalf of the citizens of this country, who under the Maastricht treaty are also citizens of the whole of the European Union. I wish that British newspapers would sometimes remind us of that important reality. A British citizen is not just a patriotic citizen of our own country; he or she is also able to work, operate, retire and travel in the European Union as well as to use the facilities of the European judicial system mainly under the General Court of the ECJ—not so much the staff court, the European Union Civil Service Tribunal, which is a separate matter—in order to deal with things in a way which is much more just than many people in this country think because of the poison in the press. It is tragic that they should believe that.
I suppose that that happens to a lesser extent in other countries, and perhaps also on a case-by-case basis, but here there is general agreement in the printed press that Europe is a bad thing and that the European institutions, the Commission and the European Parliament are menaces. The Council of Ministers is all right because that is member Governments, but even that comes in for attack if it does not agree with what the British Government are suggesting. This nonsense really ought to stop.
The recommendations in the report are very important. The suggestion of increasing the number of judges by one-third is important. I hope that my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness will respond on that. I think it is very important to bear in mind that although there are no severe problems like this in the European Union Civil Service Tribunal, the sentiments about it expressed in paragraph 54 need to be looked at quite carefully. Coming back to the ECJ itself, and the need to get the workload down, and to increase the number of judges in the General Court, this needs to be done with some urgency.
As for the budget matters that we are considering, being one-quarter of 1 per cent of the total EU budget—and nowadays I think I am right in saying that most years the budget outlays are less than the original appropriations; there is always a gap between them when you take the total EU budget—there is money at the margin available for these matters; they can be easily dealt with within those parameters, and I do not think there should be an excuse. At the hearing, the Attorney-General kept harping on about financial problems and problems of government spending and that we had to be very careful—of course that is a general position that a lot of people accept—but really these are small amounts of money. The idea that a court’s functioning would be impaired and would suffer not just at the margin but quite significantly in its general activities because of a lack of funds is totally unacceptable, particularly in the international context. This is a treaty-based institution, where we have to work with our fellow member states, and I think sometimes they psychologically and in an ineffable way seem to give much more support to these institutions than we do in Britain.
I do not think that applies to the House of Lords. Tonight we have the two Lord Wallaces on the Front Bench: the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, of course dealing with other matters tonight, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness. I hope I do not misrepresent them when I say that they are both enthusiastic supporters of our membership of the European Union—I am glad to see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, confirming that—and so we can go onwards and upwards with this excellent report and get some good responses from the Government tonight.
My Lords, I too am grateful to our chairman and to the staff of our committee for helping us to prepare this report. Like a rather large number of Members of this House, I am something of a veteran of European treaties and the institutional changes that have flowed from them: Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon—I have been through them all. I have sat through and taken part in some of the debates we have had.
If we retrospectively reflected on the experience of treaty change and institutional change, I have a sneaking suspicion that we would find a rather high proportion of either unintended consequences of those changes or that at least the assessment of what impact these changes would make has often been wrong or ill conceived. My noble and learned friend Lord Boyd made a reference to one such glaring example to which we draw attention in our report, in paragraph 52, on the European Chemicals Agency. This was established on an assumption that there would be only 250,000 licences granted. As my noble friend has said, the figure is now likely to be 2 million. As the president of the General Court said in evidence, a proportion of them will be challenged so it is inevitable that the workload of the General Court will increase. Here is a perfect example of the way in which treaty change was made or institutions were established without any effective impact assessment.
This strengthens our case for being, if not pessimistic, realistic about the changes the Lisbon treaty will have on the work of the Court of Justice. The Lisbon treaty created a fundamental change in the architecture, destroying the whole of that third pillar and bringing within the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice the areas of freedom, security and justice. What will flow from that is a very significant increase in the workload of the European Court of Justice. It was flagged up first by our European Union Committee in 2007-08 in what I thought was the most thorough and wonderful scrutiny of the impact of the Lisbon treaty. On page 127, the European Union Committee flagged up that there would be problems with the workload of the Court of Justice as a result of this change and the inclusion of this extra jurisdiction.
We have followed that up and have confirmed those concerns in our report. In paragraphs 42 and 43, we spell out that it is not simply a matter of more cases but that they will be in areas likely to generate much more difficult and important forms of litigation, and that for the first time the Court will be dealing with individuals in custody, and therefore will need speedy justice, a fast-track approach. Indeed, that is presumably partly why in the Lisbon treaty there is a fast-track procedure to deal with it. If one reads further on what this fast-track procedure is, the assumption was that 10 or fewer cases a year would be fast-tracked. Now we suspect that with the changes that have occurred to the jurisdiction there will be a lot more fast-tracked cases. There will be two consequences of that. First, it could displace other, less urgent cases to be dealt with over a longer and longer time. Secondly, in the annexe to our report, on page 67, it says that if there were an increase in fast-track cases,
“the number of cases that the Court could handle … would decrease sharply”—
because of the nature of fast-tracking, there is going to be a very significant potential displacement of other cases. I do not think we are being alarmist in saying to the House and to Ministers that this is going to create a much greater problem than is being recognised at the moment.
When I joined our chairman and two others in going to Luxembourg, I was rather surprised by how rather sanguine many of the Court administrators were about the impact these changes are going to have on the work of the Court of Justice. Sadly, not only did I find them sanguine in Luxembourg, I now find that Ministers here are sanguine. The letter from Mr Lidington says that he is not convinced that the Court is facing an imminent crisis. I do not know what imminent means, but certainly within the next two or three years we are going to see a very significant increase and significant pressure. It is not unjustifiable to present it as a potential crisis, with which Ministers do not appear to be fully engaged.
I hope tonight when the noble and learned Lord replies that we will at least have something more than the replies we have had so far to our reports, and of course to the other suggestions that have been made by the Court itself since our report came out. Reading Ministers’ responses so far, it appears that they are very good at telling us what they do not want to do but not at telling us how they are going to handle the crisis. I think they are in a state of semi-denial that there is a crisis on the horizon and I hope tonight to be enlightened not only on the proposals they have but to be reassured that in fact they appreciate and understand the potential seriousness that the courts face.
My Lords, I adopt all the calls that have been made for clarity on the part of the Government in response to this report and to the problems of the Court of Justice. I was not a member of the relevant committee at the time of this report so I can praise the work of the committee in producing it, and I can praise the work of the chairman and indeed the clarity of the speech he made today.
It is clear that everyone agrees that European courts, both the Luxembourg courts—the Court of Justice and particularly the General Court—and the Strasbourg court, the European Court of Human Rights, are overloaded. I need not go into the position of the Strasbourg court, but there are 160,000 cases pending and the numbers are increasing annually at a rate of 12.5 per cent. There is of course now a linkage between the Luxembourg court and the Strasbourg court, with the EU becoming a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, and there is therefore a danger of possible further delays.
The Government may be reluctant to call the position of the Court of Justice a crisis, but there is clearly a major problem of delays, as the CBI pointed out, which are relevant to our business, and therefore something has to change. Even if the intellectual property cases were shunted into a separate court, that would still leave a backlog of 1,000 cases before the General Court, where much of the work is of course consideration of fact. That is roughly two years’ work if one sees that perhaps 500 cases are concluded in a year.
What, then, to do? The editorial in the most recent edition of the Common Market Law Review, which again is a tribute to the committee’s work, stated as follows:
“It would seem that by now, all the possible options for reform and their respective pros and cons have been on the table several times … a big leap seems inescapable. It is only a matter of time”.
The Government thus far seem to want to avoid a big leap. Their proposed changes range from: reducing the supply of cases; changes to the rules of procedure—and the Government state that there is little prospect of member states agreeing to a degree of autonomy of the Court in respect of its own procedures; broader, better case management; more new specialist courts; and the appointment of more judges.
Clearly there is a need to look at procedures; the editorial states that essentially the procedures of the court reflect the Court’s role as an administrative court carrying out judicial review in respect of the activities of member states, when increasingly now the emphasis has changed to references from member states for preliminary rulings.
The Government appear to oppose limits on pleadings to cut down more prolix advocates, and the Court’s potential powers to dispense with oral hearings. As one of our colleagues said earlier, we know what the Government are against; we do not know what the Government are for. The Government are surely not just outside observers but should be active participants in these debates.
There must surely be some scope, despite what the committee says, for a reduction in translation. French is of course the working language, for understandable reasons of history, but increasingly the new member states have English as their main working language. Alas, there is clearly a veto possible for the French Government, so we cannot see much change there.
Changes in the structure of the Court have helped in the past. In 2005 the Civil Service Tribunal was established, and the committee calls it a success story. Some 30 years or so ago I was writing the section on the European courts in The Solicitors’ Diary, and it was clear at that time that there was too much able judge power on cases that were relatively trivial, save for the individuals concerned, and that would have gone to employment tribunals in the UK. That was 30 years ago. It took all that time to set up this specialist court, which perhaps does not augur well for changes to come about in a timely fashion.
The case against further specialist tribunals and in favour of an increase in the number of judges is set out persuasively in the letter of the president of the Court to the president of the Council: that there are risks in relation to consistency, the flexibility of judge power, the speed of implementation and so on. The letter states that an increase in the number of judges in the General Court is,
“essential … to reduce within a short time the volume of cases pending before the court and the duration of proceedings”.
If it is true that it could be solved in only a short time, one must ask why the large increase from 27 to 39 should be permanent, and what the prospects are of a reduction in the future if the case load were to warrant it.
There is clearly now a conflict between the views of a number of member states and the president of the Court. This is a matter of judgment in respect of both the costs and the efficient running of the courts. There is probably no prospect now of an outside independent expert being asked to report on the comparative costs, as this would only lead to further delay.
However, I end where a number of colleagues have ended. It is uncertain where Her Majesty’s Government stand, so perhaps the Minister will clarify for us on which side the Government stand. Are the Government leaning towards more specialist tribunals, with all the problems set out by the president, or do they now accept the case for an increase in the number of judges in the General Court?
My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea in congratulating the committee and its chair on the excellent report before us tonight. It once again shows the value of our European Union Select Committee and the work that it does. The subject of the Court of Justice is—and I come on to this in a moment or two—a subject that arouses great passions in some quarters, but this is a model of a balanced report based on careful study of evidence and entirely non-partisan in its spirit, and I think, as the Opposition do, that the Government would do well to heed its recommendations.
My only regret—and it is a point that I have made about these reports before—is that it was completed at the end of March and we are now debating it in the second half of October. In this case, it so happens that the report and its recommendations remain relevant, topical and timely, but that is not always the case, and we should give these Select Committee reports a high priority in our work.
Obviously there is a real problem about the Court’s growing case load. I looked up how many cases the ECJ had before it or had settled in the year before we joined the European Community in 1970, and the number was 70. In 2010, the figure was 574, which tells you something about the expanded scope of the European Union’s work. I agree with my noble friend Lord Rowlands that some of this is the result of unintended consequences, but at the same time one also has to acknowledge the technical complexity of operating a single market as seen in the REACH chemicals directive or the extension of the scope of European activity into areas such as criminal justice, because our security depends on our interdependence with our neighbours. This will inevitably bring more work into the remit of the Court.
In one respect, the letter that we have received from the Minister for Europe, the right honourable David Lidington, is encouraging. It acknowledges that there is a workload problem, and it is encouraging that the Government are having discussions about this. However, the sentence,
“we are not convinced that the court is facing an imminent crisis”,
suggests to me that the Government are not grappling with this issue with the urgency that they should.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, explained how the delays in the Court are very damaging. If you look at the evidence on how long cases such as competition cases take to get resolved—33 months—that is not terribly satisfactory from anyone’s point of view. It is not satisfactory on grounds of efficiency and justice, nor does it happen to be in Britain’s national interest. We need an effective Court, as we need an effective Commission, to police the single market’s rules. Perhaps I may make an obvious point that is worth repeating again and again; there is a huge contradiction in the attitude of Eurosceptics towards the European Union. They say that they joined only a single market and that all they want is a single market, but they refuse to accept that the functioning of the single market depends on effective supranational institutions such as the Commission and the Court: that you cannot have one without the other. I would like the Government—I know that the pro-European half, or section, of the Government is facing me from the Front Bench—to feel that the whole of the Government recognise the truth of that argument: namely, that it is in Britain’s national interest to have an effective ECJ.
There are Members in the other place who have strong views about the ECJ. I was very alarmed to read that Mr George Eustice, in this new group of Eurosceptic Conservative Back-Benchers that was established, started talking about how in reality the European Court of Justice operates as a political court; that it has been out of control for far too long; and that it is time to clip its wings and to make it accountable to Parliament, as though it is normal that courts are accountable to politicians. That is the attitude in important sections of the governing party.
The fundamental reason why these sensible proposals are not being squarely addressed by the Government is because of this politics, which is getting into very dangerous territory. Some Members in the other place have attacked individual British Members. One attacked the British Advocate-General, Eleanor Sharpston, just because she happened to be, in their view, on the wrong side in the metric martyrs case. That kind of populist approach to the European Court is quite unacceptable. We need to see on the part of the Government a willingness to deal with these issues in the kind of objective manner that is in our national interest, as this report recommends. I commend the report to the House.
My Lords, first, I join the noble Lords, Lord Liddle and Lord Anderson—the three of us not being members of the committee—in congratulating my noble friend Lord Bowness and the members of his committee on this important work which they have undertaken. I think the first call for evidence was in the summer of 2010 and that the report was published just one week after the president of the Court published his proposals. The fact that it was timely shows the foresight of the committee in identifying what is undoubtedly a very important issue.
I believe that the report’s conclusions and recommendations have been a valuable contribution to the current debate. We have heard those conclusions and recommendations echoed in the contributions this evening, which I will seek to address. It is important that we take this opportunity to discuss these matters. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, asked what the Government believe in. They believe very much in the effective and uniform interpretation, application and enforcement of European Union law across the Union, which was a point well made by my noble friend Lord Bowness in his opening remarks.
We believe that the Court of Justice has a vital role to play in ensuring that member states and European Union institutions act in accordance with the treaties. It is therefore essential to the functioning of the single market that it ensures that there is a level playing field for United Kingdom businesses operating in other member states, and vital in upholding the rights under European Union law of British citizens living and working in other member states. That point was well made by my noble friend Lord Dykes, who emphasised that the Court has that important role in safeguarding the rights of people who are not only United Kingdom citizens but citizens of the European Union.
Accordingly, the Government share your Lordships’ views that the Court of Justice of the European Union is in need of reform in order to work through its sizeable backlog of cases and to reduce the time taken to process cases in the future. I can confirm that since the publication of the committee’s report, officials have been engaged in discussions with their counterparts in the European Union about reform of the Court, following on a set of six recommendations made by the president of the Court to the Council. Discussion has continued between officials and at ministerial level on a bilateral basis and within the Council. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, asked about that. I can confirm that there have been meetings. In July, the Minister for Europe raised the issue at the General Affairs Council. As I have indicated, discussions continue at a working level, most recently on Friday of last week. The Government are engaging constructively in these meetings with an open mind. We certainly see merits in a number of the recommendations, to which I will deal with in more detail.
I am sure your Lordships’ House will forgive me for not divulging the details of working group discussions, which by their very nature are confidential, but I can indicate in the broadest terms that officials of the United Kingdom Government have been focusing on negotiating changes to the Court’s structure and its rules of procedure, which would enhance the quality of the Court’s judgments and reduce the turnaround time of cases while emphasising—it is important to emphasise this and to remind ourselves of the need for—cost efficiency. In the current economic climate, it is vital to ensure value for money for our taxpayers, and the proposals that the Court makes must be assessed according to financial and budgetary implications. Indeed, I think that even the summary of the conclusions of the committee’s report acknowledged that there were cost implications.
As the debate has made clear, the most significant reform under discussion is the composition of the General Court and specifically the question of how to expand its capacity. I will perhaps deal with that in more detail later. We know that the committee proposed an increase of one-third to 36 members. The president of the Court has tabled a proposal to add to the number of members of the General Court by 12 judges, which is of course one of the key subjects under discussion within the Council. As has been identified, and as I will elaborate, there are other possible options, such as the creation of a specialist trademark court or specialist chambers within the General Court, for managing trademark cases. Officials are considering how each would improve the efficiency of the court, the political and legal implications that they would have and the financial ramifications.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, and the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, asked whether there was an imminent crisis. Although we recognise the huge challenge with regard to the General Court, the report itself, as well as contributors to the debate this evening, recognises that the Court of Justice has done a remarkable job in managing its case load. It was in that context that we did not accept that there is an imminent crisis with regard to Court of Justice—I think the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, said “potential crisis”. Clearly this is something that we want to focus on to ensure that it continues to build on the advances that it has made.
The report itself recommended that there should be the appointment of extra Advocates-General. It is not clear what evidence this is based on. Significantly, it is not one of the proposals which the Court itself felt was necessary when the president of the Court put forward its proposals. Other measures have come forward from the president of the Court that we would aim to assist: the possibility of the appointment of a vice-president, and the proposal with regard to how grand chamber might be restructured. We are looking at that seriously. We want to ensure that, in doing so, there is continuity, across the courts, of the jurisprudence of the Court. That particular proposal is somewhat complex.
On the issue that was described in your Lordships’ report as the “green light”, we would not necessarily go as far as that but we think it is of considerable importance, when national courts are framing their reference, that they do so concisely. We would certainly encourage them to put forward any proposal and conclusions that they may have reached in framing that reference, so that when the Court of Justice looks at these preliminary references it is very focused on the particular issues.
My noble friend Lord Bowness made some specific points, reminding us that the Council also legislates. Those points were extremely well made. Certainly the Government are seeking to ensure that there is clarity not only for those who subsequently have to interpret the law in the courts but perhaps most importantly for those who have to implement the law in their businesses and daily lives. That is certainly the objective of the negotiations, but I think it is also fair to say that, in a negotiation involving 27 member states, that objective is not always as easy to achieve as one might hope.
A similar answer applies to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rowlands, and my noble friend Lord Bowness about the legislative implications of certain decisions. Perhaps that should not be a counsel of perfection. It ought to be given attention, but again I suspect that that is easier to say, and to make exhortations for, than it is to deliver in the legislation itself.
Does the noble and learned Lord accept the fact that, as a result of the change in jurisdiction, there is going to be a very considerable increase in fast-tracking procedures within the Court of Justice and that this will have very considerable consequences for the rest of its workload?
The noble Lord raised the point about the possibility, post-Lisbon, of fast-tracking and asked whether there was going to be a significant increase. There are issues there which need to be considered. There is not yet any evidence of that coming through, but it is not something to which we are turning a blind eye. According to the Court of Justice’s report on its work in 2010—after the Lisbon Treaty came into force—the use of the urgent preliminary measure in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice was requested in six cases, and granted in five. It is of course relevant to the work of the Court of Justice in its consideration of preliminary references, which is its other main volume of work. It is less relevant in the case of the General Court, which does not do that kind of work. I shall come onto that, as there is agreement across the House that there are quite clearly issues as regards the work of the General Court.
We fully recognise that there are issues that need to be considered in terms of the particular problems which the General Court is facing. Justice delayed is justice denied: it is a phrase which trips off the tongue, but it is one with substance and truth. The position of the General Court is one to which we are giving our attention. The proposal on the table is the one that has come from the President of the Court. It is that there should be an increase in the size of the Court by nine. The House has reasonably asked about our position with regard to the consideration of a specialist trademark court or specialist chambers within the General Court. We see merit in the proposal put forward by the committee of your Lordships’ House of increasing the number and we are considering it against our basic criteria of quality of judgments, their timeliness and cost-effectiveness. That is why we are not ruling it out, but why we also believe that some of the other options ought to be given consideration too.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd of Duncansby, referred to the letter sent on 4 July by my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe to the noble Lord, Lord Roper. He pointed out that while he recognised the point that judges on a specialist tribunal may not be widely deployable, creating a specialist tribunal would free up judges in the General Court currently working on trademark cases to deal with other types of case. It is important to note that judges currently dealing with trademark cases, which form a substantial part of the General Court’s work, would be freed up for other work. The Commission itself said in its response to the President’s proposals, published at the end of last month, that it has looked at the possibility of specialist chambers within the General Court. It is important that these options are fully explored with regard to what will deliver the best in terms of efficiency, speed and quality of judgment.
However, as I have indicated, we cannot ignore the question of finance. I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Dykes that in the totality of the European Union budget it may appear a small matter, but nevertheless it is the Government’s position that there should be no increase in real terms over the next spending period. We want to examine the costs of the different options. The estimate of the Court itself on an increase of 12 judges is some €13 million. We would want to drill down on that and ask why the cost is more than €1 million per extra judge. We would also wish to look at the fact that the Court has had over the past year an underspend of €5.5 million. It is not unreasonable, in exploring the different options, to bear in mind the costs and to try to ensure that we not only achieve what is best in terms of speed of delivery, but also that there is efficient use of taxpayers’ money—not just that of British taxpayers, but of taxpayers throughout Europe.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd, said, we recognise that delay sometimes brings its own costs, and that must be part of the equation, but we feel that considerably more work could be done, not least given the fact that there was a €5.5 million underspend of the Court’s budget last year. Obviously, as the committee itself indicated, it may be possible to find funds by deprioritising other parts of the budget.
I hope I have emphasised the fact that the Government take this issue seriously. We appreciate the constructive proposals that have been put forward. As I have indicated, we are not ruling out the possibility of an increase in judges. At the present time, the proposal on the table is for an extra 12 judges, which has come from the President of the Court. We are giving these matters detailed consideration through working groups and at ministerial level. We are also conscious that the outcome in the end should be to ensure that the Court of Justice, as one of the institutions of the European Union, delivers and serves the wider purposes both of the Union itself and of European citizens. They should be on the receiving end of justice when the call comes for it. I hope that I have reassured your Lordships that we are taking this matter seriously and working diligently to get the right outcome in terms of speed, quality and cost-effectiveness.