Towards a European Union legislation on presumption of innocence in criminal law


(FREE Group trainee)

“The law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape that one innocent suffer” Sir William Blackstone, (Commentaries on the Laws of England1760).


For a long time, legal proceedings have been based on factual events. As far as they cannot be proven to be correct 100% of the time, judges had to use legal presumptions. Indeed, the purpose of presumptions is to distribute the burden of proof in order to give a solution to cases without clear evidence . If the parties to an adversarial case are not able to prove, presumption will prevail and the case will be decided against it[i].

The presumption of innocence, according to which one has to  be considered innocent until his or her guilt can be proven by the prosecution and beyond reasonable doubts, was the answerto this need . Dating back toRoman law and originally considered as a procedural rule, the presumption of innocence became progressively the core principle of criminal proceedings[ii], as well as the ‘axiomatic and elementary’ cornerstone of the right to a fair trial[iii].

As a mark of its accession to the rank of a human right, the presumption of innocence is nowadays enshrined in different international instruments, such as at art. 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, at art. 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 16 December 1966, which has been the object of the General Comment 32 by the Human rights Committee.[iv]

The presumption of innocence is also enshrined as the basis of the right to a fair trial and the right of defence of the accused or suspected by article 6 § 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights of 4 November 1950.

In the European Union, before the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty the presumption of innocence was recognised by the CJEU jurisprudence mostly in the field of competition law. The Luxembourg Court recognised that the presumption of innocence and the applicable rules of evidence, such as those concerning the burden of proof, were general principles of law, whose non-observance would amount to an error of law[v]

However, after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, article 48 § 1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union  is now the clear reference at primary law level to the need to respect for this principle. . It is worth noting that according to  the Charter’s Explanations the right in Article 48(1) is to be given the same meaning and scope as the rights guaranteed by Article 6(2) of the ECHR, as stated by the art. 52 § 3 of the same Charter. Therefore the understanding of what presumption of innocence would mean at the EU level implies a close scrutiny to the ECHR case-law, with the possibility for EU to stem higher standards of protection.

Preparing a specific EU legislative framework for presumption of innocence Continue reading “Towards a European Union legislation on presumption of innocence in criminal law”

The End of the Transitional Period for Police and Criminal Justice Measures Adopted before the Lisbon Treaty. Who Monitors Trust in the European Justice Area?

 Abstract of a study submitted to the European Parliament Civil Liberties Committee. (LIBE) THE FULL TEXT IS AVAILABLE HERE

Authors:                                                                                                                            Prof. Valsamis Mitsilegas, Head of Department of Law and Professor of European  Criminal Law, Queen Mary, University of London                                                                  Dr Sergio Carrera, Senior Research Fellow and Head of Justice and Home Affairs           Section, Centre for European Policy Studies, CEPS                                                                Dr Katharina Eisele, Researcher, CEPS

This Study examines the legal and political implications of the forthcoming end of the transitional period, enshrined in Protocol 36 to the EU Treaties, applicable to legislative measures dealing with police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters and adopted before the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. The analysis focuses on the meaning of the transitional period for the wider nature and fundamentals of the European Criminal Justice area and its interplay in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (AFSJ). Particular attention is paid to its multifaceted consequences of ‘Lisbonisation’ as regards supranational legislative oversight and judicial scrutiny, not least by the European Parliament in this context, as well as its relevance at times of rethinking the relationship between the principle of mutual recognition of judicial decisions and the fundamental rights of the defence in criminal matters in the AFSJ.

Legal Framework of the Transition

The transitional provisions envisaged in Protocol 36 have limited some of the most far-reaching innovations introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon over EU cooperation in justice and home affairs (JHA) for a period of five years (1 December 2009 to 1 December 2014). Such limits include restrictions on the enforcement powers of the European Commission and of the judicial scrutiny of the Court of Justice of the European Union over legislative measures adopted in these fields before the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty under the old EU Third Pillar (Title VI of the former version of the Treaty on the European Union). Moreover, Protocol 36 provides for special ‘opt-out/opt-in’ possibilities for the UK. The scope and rules set out in Protocol 36 are of a highly complex and technical nature. The end of the transitional period enshrined in Protocol 36 reveals a complex conglomerate of legal provisions and procedures primarily designed for meeting the interest of some Member States’ governments to limit EU scrutiny, supervision and enforcement powers over national implementation and compliance with European law on police and criminal justice cooperation. This is a critical juncture because the transitional provisions of Protocol 36 come to a formal end on 1 December 2014.

Findings and Challenges

The main legal and political challenges related to the transitional provisions of Protocol 36 are multifaceted. The forthcoming end of the transitional period will only partially address the diverse legal landscape of fundamental rights protection in Europe’s area of criminal justice. The Study argues that the non-participation of the UK in EU legal instruments dealing with suspects’ rights in criminal proceedings undermines severely the effective operability of pre-Lisbon Treaty instruments driven by the mutual recognition principle, such as the European Arrest Warrant, even if from a ‘black letter’ law perspective the UK is entitled to ‘pick and choose’. In addition, the complex legal setting has contributed to creating legal uncertainty and lack of transparency characterising EU criminal justice instruments and their common applicability and implementation across the EU. The ambivalent position of the UK opens up the emergence of different and even competing areas of justice as well as dispersed levels of Europeanisation where enforcement of the principle of mutual recognition and protection of suspect rights are variable and anachronistic across the Union.

That notwithstanding, the Study argues that one of the most far-reaching consequences of the end of the transitional period will be the shifting of supervision on compliance and faithful implementation of EU law on police and criminal justice from domestic authorities in the Member States to EU institutional instances. The end of the transition will most significantly mean the liberalisation of ‘who monitors trust in the AFSJ’. This shift will for the first time ensure transnational legal, judicial and democratic accountability of Member States’ laws and practices implementing EU law in these contested areas, in particular the extent to which EU legislation is timely and duly observed by national authorities.

Protocol 36 does not foresee a formal role for the European Parliament in the decisions involved in the transition. Yet, the Parliament does have responsibility for the partly highly sensitive content of the Third Pillar measures directly affecting the citizens’ rights and freedoms and as co-legislator in post-Lisbon Treaty laws in these same domains. The lack of an effective and independent evaluation mechanism of EU criminal justice instruments based on the principle of mutual recognition poses a major challenge to legal and democratic accountability.

Protocol 36 has primarily aimed at limiting the degree of supranational (EU) legal, judicial and democratic scrutiny concerning EU Member States’ obligations in the EU Area of Justice. The legal patchwork of UK participation in pre- and post-Treaty of Lisbon criminal justice acquis indeed sends a critical signal of incoherency in the current delineation of the European Criminal Justice Area. The Study argues that the varied landscape resulting from the selective participation of the UK in EU criminal law measures poses significant challenges for legal certainty, the protection of fundamental rights in Europe’s area of criminal justice and the overall coherence of EU law.

Article 82(2) TFEU grants express EU competence to legislate on rights of the defence in criminal procedures where necessary to facilitate the operation of the principle of mutual recognition in criminal matters. The legality of post-Lisbon legislation on defence rights is thus inextricably linked with the effective operation of mutual recognition in criminal matters, including of the Framework Decision on the European Arrest Warrant. This is supported by pertinent case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which ruled against previous UK requests to participate in the Visa Information System, or the Frontex and biometrics regulations on the basis of a teleological and contextual approach focusing on the coherence of EU law.

The Study argues that defence rights should not be negotiable at the expense of citizens’ and residents’ rights and freedoms. There is a direct causal link under EU primary law between the adoption of EU defence rights measures and the effective operation of mutual recognition enforcement instruments. Differing levels of EU Member State commitment to and participation in the fundamental rights of individuals in criminal proceedings run counter to a teleological approach which respects fully the objectives and the integrated nature of the AFSJ.


  • Increasing Coherency and Practical Operability: Suspects Rights as Sine qua non

The transition envisaged in Protocol 36 may well lead to incoherency and practical inoperability of the European Criminal Justice Area. The European Parliament as co-legislator in EU criminal justice law has an active role to play at times of ensuring that a common understanding of ‘ensuring coherency’ and ‘practical operability’ of the EU AFSJ is firmly anchored on strong defence rights and fair trial protection (rights of suspected or accused persons) and a sound rule of law-compliant (on-the­ground) implementation across the domestic justice arenas of EU Member States.

  • Promoting Consolidation and Codification — Better Linking of Mutual Recognition and Rights of Suspects in Criminal Proceedings

The European Parliament should give priority at times of implementing previous inter-institutional calls for consolidation and even codification of existing EU rules and instruments dealing with judicial cooperation in criminal matters. The new LIBE Committee should follow up the calls outlined in the European Parliament Report with recommendations to the Commission on the review of the European Arrest Warrant (2013/2109(INL). This should go along with the full accomplishment of the EU Roadmap of suspects’ rights in criminal proceedings as well as the procedural rights package.

  • Implementation and Evaluation — A Stronger Democratic Accountability

The European Parliament should give particular priority to better ensuring Member States’ timely and effective implementation of pre- and post-Lisbon Treaty European criminal law. An effective and independent evaluation mechanism should be developed following the template provided by the new 2013 Schengen Evaluation Mechanism, in which the European Parliament has played a role in the decision-making and implementation. This template should be followed at times of implementing any future system for criminal justice cooperation.

The Study starts by situating the discussion and briefly explaining the material scope and particulars featuring the transitional period in Protocol 36 in Section 2. Section 3 then moves into locating the debate in the specific context of the UK, and outlining its casuistic or privileged position in respect of the expansion of `supranationalism’ over EU police and criminal justice cooperation. Section 4 identifies a number of cross-cutting dilemmas and challenges affecting the transitional period, in particular those related to the impact of activating the Commission and Luxembourg Court’s legal and judicial scrutiny powers, questions of incoherencies due to UK’s variable participation and the obstacles to practical operability. Section 5 lays down three potential scenarios for the way forward in what concerns issues of fragmentation and coherence, reforming old EU Third Pillar law and the EAW while ensuring their added value, and questions related to implementation, consolidation and codification of EU criminal law. Section 6 offers some conclusions and puts forward a set of policy suggestions to the European Parliament and its LIBE Committee.

Towards a Declaration of Internet Rights

by Professor Stefano RODOTA’ (FREE Group member) (*)

For many years there has been a wide discussion about the possibility of adopting an Internet Bill of Rights, and debates have produced a considerable number of proposals. The Berkman Centre at Harvard University counted 87 of such proposals, to which we can add the Internet Magna Charta that Tim Berners-Lee is working on, and lastly the Declaration of the Rights of Internet Rights that has been drafted by a Committee established by the President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. The novelty of the latter is that for the first time the proposal of an Internet Bill of Rights has not been produced by scholars, associations, dynamic coalitions, enterprises, or groups of stakeholders, but by an institutional entity.

It is necessary to recall that the debate on this topic dates back to the World Summit on the Information Society organised in 2005 by the UN in Tunis, where the need for an International Convention on Internet rights was explicitly underlined. This subject was deepened in the following UN Internet Governance Forums. But the international debate was progressively turned into precise rules within the European Union, even before the issue of the Internet Bill of Rights appeared in the international arena. These are not, however, parallel situationsdestined not to meet at any point. The European Union progressively brought to light the constitutional basis of the protection of personal data, finding its full recognition in Article 8 (**) of its Charter of Fundamental Rights. Here a strong similarity with the Internet Bill of Rights is identified, and it concerns precisely the constitutional scope of rules.

We are going through a phase of deep change in the way in which we are facing the problems highlighted by the Internet dynamics, in the passage from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and now to Web 3.0. It is not just a matter of following technological changes by adjusting legal provisions to suit them. A new definition is being developed of the rationale driving actions in this area, through a radical U-turn as regards the dynamics of the latest phase. A possible historical turning point is ahead of us, whose/that’s opportunities must be seized.

It seemed that an approach had become consolidated, which left little room to rights. From Scott McNealy’s abrupt statement of 1999 – “You have zero privacy. Get over it” – up to the recent hasty conclusion by Mark Zuckerberg about the end of privacy as a “social rule”, a line characterised by the intertwining of two elements emerged: technological irresistibility and the primacy of the economic logic. On the one side, in fact, it was highlighted how technological innovations and the new social practices made it increasingly difficult, not to say impossible, the safeguard of one’s private life and of the public liberties; on the other side, the statement on the “death of privacy” had become the argument to state that personal information had to be considered as property of those who collected it.

These certainties were radically challenged by Edward Snowden’s disclosure on the magnitude of the National Security Agency’s Prism programme and by the judgements of the European Court of Justice on data retention and Google. The idea according to which the protection of fundamental rights shall give way to the interests of security agencies and enterprises was rejected.

A new hierarchy has been established, with the fundamental rights as the first and starting point. The US President had to admit the inadmissibility of the procedures provided for by the Prism program and the Court of Justice, with its decision of 8th April, that declared that the Directive on data retention was illegal. And in the Google case the same Court explicitly stated that “the fundamental rights under Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter (…) override, as a norm (…) the economic interest of the operator of the search engine”, in a perspective broadening the European Union’s jurisdiction beyond its borders.

We are faced with a true “resurrection of privacy” and, more generally, with the primacy of the need and legitimacy of rules effectively protecting the rights of Internet users. Making reference to article 8 of the Charter, the Court of Justice was acting as a true constitutional court, opening a new and wide perspective.

The Italian initiative

This is the framework within which the Italian initiative on the Declaration of Internet Rights was adopted. Its goal is not limited to having a text to be used for national debate only.

The establishment of the Committee that drafted the document, in fact, was preceded by an international conference gathering some of the authors of the Brazilian Marco Civil, the representatives of European Institutions, and several experts from different Countries.

The text drafted by the Committee was presented on 13th October during a meeting at the Chamber of Deputies with the Presidents of the Parliamentary Committees of Member Countries in charge of fundamental rights.

The present draft is now submitted to a four-month public consultation on the Internet, at the end of which the Committee will draft the final text. Such consultation, however, is also being carried out at a European and international level, as shown by the contacts with other European Parliaments and by the video conference that will be held at the beginning of December between the Italian and the French Committees. Consultations are also taking place with experts and associations from non-European Countries.

An ambitious target was set: drafting a text allowing a common international debate, accompanied by a constant monitoring by the Chamber of Deputies. The goal is not limited to working in the complex and remote perspective of an international convention. Short-term and feasible results can be achieved, concerning the strengthening of the European system, its developments and the relationships with other countries, and most of all the consolidation of a culture highlighting common dynamics in the different legal systems. In this way, the debate around a future Internet Bill of Rights may lead to the awareness that in the different legal systems several elements already exist that, once connected to one another, establish an informal Internet Bill of Rights. An evidence of such trend is found in the decisions of the Courts of the different Countries and in the choice of legislative models, as shown by the clear influence of the European model on the Brazilian Marco Civil.

The Italian Declaration is characterised by a fundamental choice. Differently from almost all the other ones, it does not contain a specific and detailed wording of the different principles and rights already stated by international documents and national Constitutions. Of course, these are generally recalled as an unavoidable reference. But the attempt of the Declaration, as a matter of fact, was to identify the specific principles and rights of the digital world, by underlining not only their peculiarities but also the way in which they generally contribute to redefining the entire sphere of rights.

The key words – besides the most well-known ones concerning the protection of personal data and the right to the informational self-determination – include access, neutrality, integrity and inviolability of IT systems and domains, mass surveillance, development of digital identity, rights and guarantees of people in Internet platforms, anonymity and right to be forgotten, interoperability, right to knowledge and education, and control over Internet governance. The importance of the needs linked to security and to the market is obviously taken into consideration, but the balancing of these interests with fundamental rights and freedoms cannot take place on equal terms, in the sense of ensuring first and foremost the full respect for rights and freedom according to the clear provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and to European case law.

In particular, security needs shall not determine the establishment of a society of surveillance, control and social sorting. Economic needs are taken into consideration in the framework of the neutrality principle that, by guaranteeing the generative nature of the Internet, keeps the possibilities for innovation unchanged, and prevents strong subjects from creating conditions of exclusion of possible competitors. Furthermore, whenever Internet platforms provide public services that are essential for the life and the activities of people, it is necessary to guarantee the conditions for a suitable interoperability in compliance with the principle of competition and equal treatment of people.

Provided that not all the issues can be analysed in this document, it is suitable recalling the need to consider the access to the Internet as a fundamental right of individuals (Tim Berners-Lee compared it to the access to water), as an essential guarantee not only against any form of censorship, but also against indirect limitations, such as taxation as it is presently happening in Hungary. The set of rights recognised do not guarantee a general freedom on the Internet, but specifically aims at preventing the dependency of people from the outside, the expropriation of the right to freely develop one’s personality and identity as it may happen with the wide and increasing use of algorithms and probabilistic techniques. The autonomy in the management of personal data, therefore, shall also consider new rights as those not to be tracked and to keep silent the chip. This perspective requires a particular in-depth analysis, since a deeply interconnected society is being developed, with a passage to Internet of Things in forms that have suggested some people to speak of an Internet of Everything, which determines a digitalisation of day-to-day lives that is able to transform any person and their bodies.

People cannot be reduced to objects of external powers, they must recover the sovereignty on their digital person. Identity is a key issue. The free development of one’s personality must be safeguarded.

Starting from this set of references, it is necessary to thoroughly examine the issue of the transformation of copyright, whose analysis was postponed to the end of the consultation, since knowledge on the Internet appears as a shared asset that can be considered as a common global resource.

A broader perspective is therefore opened by the Italian draft Declaration, in consideration of the large amount of topics to be tackled and the debate between different points of view; and such Declaration is significantly in line with the European Union policy that particularly emphasises the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The unquestionable aspect is the need to fine-tune a constitutional policy for the Internet, whose users – presently amounting to three billion people – cannot rely on a freedom guaranteed by the absence of rules, as it is still presently stated.

The reality is very different, showing an interconnected network heavily regulated by private subjects that cannot be controlled and that have no democratic legitimation, as it happens – beyond any disputes – with the “Over the Top” operating on the Internet. Internet rights are denied by totalitarian regimes and, unfortunately, by democratic regimes as well. The perspective of a Declaration of Internet rights aims at developing – through procedures different from the ones of the past – the constitutional rules that are fundamental in order to allow the Internet to keep its main feature as a place of freedom and democracy, as the widest space of the history of mankind.


(*) Intervention at the Friedrich-Ebert-StiftungFREE Group experts meeting on :
Internet: only a “single digital market” or also a space to promote fundamental rights – Towards a European “Marco Civil”? (November 12, 2014). The main idea of this experts’ conference has been to have a first look to the impact of the EU Digital Agenda on fundamental rights as framed by the Treaties, the EU Charter and the recent CJEU jurisprudence (Data retention, Google Case..). As stated by the Charter the individual should be at the center of all EU policies and this objective underpins the recent proposal for an Internet Bill Of Rights of the Italian Chamber of Deputies as well as other national examples (Brasilian “Marco Civil” and recent US initiatives at government, congress and civil society level).
Bearing in mind that EU is competent on most of the aspects dealing with Internet the question arises how to preserve and promote individual rights notably in the pending negotiations on legislative proposals notably on Data Protection, Net Neutrality and Network Security (NIS). Moreover what should be the future initiatives to be developed by the a new Commission’s legislative programme impacting on Internet ? How the future EU single digital market could preserve the principles of non-discrimination, and of informational self determination by strengthening the access to internet as a public common good ?
Together with Stefano Rodotà took also part to the Seminar
Claude Moraes Chairman of the European Parliament Civil liberties Committee (which adopted in 2009 a first Internet Bill of Rights resolution)
Jan Philipp Albrecht EP Rapporteur for the Data Protection Regulaiton and for the transatlantic “umbrella” Agreement
Paul Nemitz Director at the European Commission
Giovanni Buttarelli, Assistant European Data Protection Supervisor
Marc ROTENBERG Professor at the Georgetown University and Director of EPIC and Marie GEORGES expert at the Council of Europe
as well as Joe Mc Namee, Executive Director, European Digital Rights (EDRi).

(**) Article 8 Protection of personal data
1. Everyone has the right to the protection of personal data concerning him or her.
2. Such data must be processed fairly for specified purposes and on the basis of the consent of the person concerned or some other legitimate basis laid down by law. Everyone has the right of access to data which has been collected concerning him or her, and the right to have it rectified.
3. Compliance with these rules shall be subject to control by an independent authority



Tarakhel v Switzerland: Another nail in the coffin of the Dublin system?


by  Professor Steve Peers (FREE Group Member)


Despite the EU’s purported adherence to high standards of human rights protection, the EU’s Dublin system, which allocates responsibility for each asylum-seeker’s application to a single Member State, has repeatedly run foul of human rights standards. Yesterday’s judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’, or ‘Strasbourg Court’) in Tarakhel v Switzerland, and the recent judgment of the same court in Sharifi v Italy and Greece, have further confirmed the problems in making this system compatible with ECHR obligations.

In fact, the Tarakhel judgment goes further than the prior judgments, which had merely exposed the lack of sufficient human rights protection in the EU legislation, as applied by Member States. Rather, it is now clear that the approach of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in interpreting the Dublin rules is also incompatible with the ECHR.


The Dublin rules initially appeared as part of the Schengen Convention, which bound only certain Member States. They were then set out in the form of the Dublin Convention,signed in 1990. This Convention was replaced by an EC Regulation (known as the ‘Dublin II Regulation’) from 2003. That Regulation was in turn replaced by the Dublin III Regulation, adopted in 2013, which applies to all applications made after 1 January 2014. Furthermore, the Dublin rules have been extended to the non-EU countries associated with the Schengen system, by means of treaties with Norway and Iceland on the one hand, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein on the other.

The previous leading cases on the compatibility of the Dublin regime with human rights were (for the Strasbourg court) the 2011 judgment in MSS v Belgium and Greece, and (for the CJEU) the judgment in NS, delivered later that same year. In MSS, the ECtHR ruled that Greece had violated Article 3 ECHR (the ban on torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment) in three ways: its treatment of the Afghan asylum-seeker in question in detention; its failure to secure adequate living conditions for him after release from detention; and its highly deficient asylum procedure. The evidence of these violations was found in numerous reports by NGOs and international bodies. The Court also ruled that Belgium had violated Article 3 ECHR because it had returned the same asylum-seeker to Greece (in accordance with the Dublin rules), even though it must have known of the situation there. For good measure, the Court also ruled that Belgium had violated Article 13 ECHR (the right to an effective remedy), since Belgium did not provide for sufficient reviews of the merits in cases such as this one.

Subsequently, the CJEU ruled in NS that asylum-seekers could not be returned to Greece, pursuant to the Dublin rules, because of systematic deficiencies in the asylum system in that country. Removals in such cases would constitute a breach of Article 4 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (the equivalent of Article 3 ECHR). However, the Court distinguished such major breaches of fundamental rights from minor violations of EU or international rules relating to refugees, which would not require Member States to refrain from applying the Dublin rules.

Before the ECtHR could rule in Tarakhel, the CJEU clarified its position in its judgment in Abdullahi, delivered late in 2013. The Court started out by emphasising the presumption that all EU Member States protected human rights, noting that there was now second-phase legislation establishing the Common European Asylum System. It then characterised the Dublin rules as essentially regulating the relationship between Member States, referring in particular to the optional ‘sovereignty’ and ‘humanitarian’ clauses in the Dublin II Regulation, as well as the possibility of conciliation or separate arrangements between Member States. It followed that when two Member States agreed which of them was the Member State of first authorised entry (triggering responsibility under the Dublin rules), an asylum-seeker could ‘only’ challenge that decision by ‘pleading systemic deficiencies in the asylum procedure and in the conditions for the reception of applicants for asylum’ in the Member State which was deemed responsible for the asylum application.

Finally, the recent Sharifi judgment pf the Strasbourg Court established that Italy’s interception of asylum-seekers from Greece in the Adriatic, and their forced return to Greece, violated Article 3 ECHR as well as the ban on collective expulsions in the Fourth Protocol to the ECHR. In doing so, it confirmed a key corollary of the MSS ruling: Member States breach the ECHR if they stop asylum-seekers fleeing an unsafe country directly from crossing their borders. Although the rules on freedom to travel for third-country nationals in the Schengen Convention do not give asylum-seekers the right to move between Schengen States (unless, improbably, they have a visa or residence permit, or the visa requirement is waived for their country of origin), the ECHR nevertheless gives asylum-seekers the freedom to travel between Schengen countries (or any States) in such circumstances. Also, the right to move to another country extends beyond the three-month time limit on intra-Schengen travel, since asylum-seekers can in principle stay until their claim is finally rejected.

The Tarakhel judgment

Yesterday’s judgment concerned a family of eight Afghans, who entered the EU by crossing the Italian border first. This made Italy responsible for their applications under the Dublin rules. However, the family soon left the asylum-seekers’ reception centre which they were assigned to in Italy, on the grounds that conditions there were inadequate for families. They moved to Austria, which triggered the Dublin rules, asking Italy to take charge of them. Italy agreed, but before their transfer to Italy could be carried out, they moved on to Switzerland. That country in turn asked Italy to take charge of the family; Italy tacitly accepted.

However, they challenged their removal to Italy on the grounds that their treatment in that country, if they were removed there, would violate Article 3 ECHR. They lost their case in the Swiss courts, so asked the ECtHR to rule that their removal to Italy would constitute a breach of Article 3, as well as Article 8 ECHR (the right to family life). They also alleged a breach of Article 13.

The ECtHR rejected the Article 13 claim on the merits, since the Swiss courts had examined the merits of their legal arguments and they were allowed to stay on Swiss territory in the meantime. It held that it was not necessary to examine the Article 8 argument. Most importantly, by a majority of 14-3, it found that there was a breach of Article 3 ECHR.

Yet there are important differences between the MSS judgment and the Tarakheljudgment. Yesterday’s judgment does not state that Italy’s asylum system has effectively collapsed, as was the case in Greece. In particular, there were no allegations in Tarakhelrelating to flaws in Italy’s asylum procedures, or as regards detention. The argument instead was solely about living conditions in Italian detention centres.

The ECtHR began by reiterating its case law from MSS about reception conditions for asylum-seekers. While Article 3 ECHR did not guarantee a home or financial assistance, in cases involving EU Member States the Court took account of their specific obligations in that respect under the EU’s reception conditions Directive. Also asylum-seekers were an ‘underprivileged and vulnerable group’, and it was possible that extreme poverty could raise issues under Article 3. The Court also referred to other prior case law on the need to ensure that child asylum-seekers, who were in a position of ‘extreme vulnerability’, enjoyed ‘protection and humanitarian assistance’.

Next, the Court reiterated the usual rule that Article 3 prevents removal if ‘substantial grounds have been shown for believing’ that there is a ‘real risk’ of treatment contrary to Article 3 in the state of destination. The same rule could be used to rebut the assumption that countries applying the Dublin system were all safe. In this context, the ECtHR referred to the CJEU’s ‘systemic deficiencies’ test set out in the judgment in NS, but made no reference to the ruling in Abdullahi that this was the ‘only’ ground for challenging the application of the Dublin rules. However, the ECtHR also ‘notes’ the recent EM judgmentof the UK Supreme Court, which expressly stated that ‘systemic deficiencies’ were not the only ground for such challenges. Overall, the Court stated that these tests had to be applied by examining ‘the applicant’s individual situation in light of the overall situation prevailing’ in the state of destination.

Applying these rules to this case, the applicants had made three complaints about the situation of the Italian reception system. The first complaint, about the slowness of identification procedures, was dismissed out of hand, since the applicants had in fact been identified quickly. As for the second complaint, the Court accepted the evidence that there were not enough places for all asylum applicants. Thirdly, as for the reception conditions within the available facilities, a number of problems had been identified by the UNHCR and the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner.

Taken as a whole, then, the Court ruled that the ‘current situation in Italy can in no way be compared to the situation in Greece at the time of the MSS judgment’, where only a small fraction of asylum-seekers could be accommodated and ‘the conditions of the most extreme poverty…existed on a large scale’. So there could not be ‘a bar to all removals of asylum seekers to that country’. Having said that, the Court accepted that there was some risk that asylum-seekers might not get accommodation, or that the accommodation would be inadequate.

As for the individual position of the applicants, that was not comparable to the facts of theMSS case either.  The family in this case were taken care of immediately by the Italian government, rather than detained and then left to fend for themselves. But again, having said that, the Court was concerned that, in light of the vulnerability of asylum-seekers, and children in particular, there was no guarantee of (adequate) accommodation for families seeking asylum in Italy. So Switzerland could not send the family to Italy unless they obtained sufficient assurances on this point. This alone constituted a breach of Article 3 ECHR.

Interestingly, the majority judgment makes no reference to the alternative possibility of asylum-seekers obtaining private family housing at the expense of the State, which the CJEU developed in its recent Saciri judgment on the reception conditions Directive.


With great respect, there are many flaws with the CJEU’s judgment in Abdullahi. That judgment confuses Regulations (directly applicable in national legal systems) with Conventions (essentially governing relations between States). It places undue reliance on provisions of the Dublin II Regulation which were never applied in practice (conciliation) or were irrelevant to the case at hand (separate arrangements between Member States). It ignores the CJEU’s own case law on the ability to challenge Member States’ application of the Dublin II rules as regards unaccompanied minors (MA), humanitarian situations (K) or withdrawn applications (Kastrati). Its scope is unclear: does it only apply when Member States agree that the criterion regarding irregular entry is applicable, or in other cases as well? In any event, the judgment needs to be rethought in light of the Dublin III Regulation, which considerably expanded the procedural rights of asylum-seekers in the Dublin context. Why do that, if they can only challenge their transfer if there is a complete breakdown in the asylum system of the State responsible for their application?

But the most fundamental flaw in the Abdullahi judgment is exactly that: the CJEU’s statement that at least in some cases, the determination of the responsible Member State can ‘only’ be challenged if there are ‘systemic deficiencies’ in the asylum system of that State. Is that statement still correct after Tarakhel?

Certainly the statement is wrong if the CJEU meant (as it appeared to say) that both the asylum procedure and the reception conditions systems have to have failed in the responsible Member State, before a transfer to that State can be challenged. In Tarakhel, there is no issue raised regarding the asylum procedure in Italy. More generally, the Italian reception system is not in complete breakdown: the Tarakhel family faces neither extreme poverty nor vile detention conditions, but merely some risk that accommodation will either not be available or that it will be somewhat unpleasant. Accordingly, the Swiss obligations are nuanced: there is no ban on transfers, merely a procedural obligation to make arrangements with the Italian authorities.

It isn’t clear whether Tarakhel abandons the CJEU’s assumption that only ‘systemic deficiencies’ in the asylum system of a responsible State can justify a challenge to a Dublin transfer, or whether the judgment merely modifies the notion of ‘systemic deficiencies’ considerably, lowering the threshold for its application. On the first hypothesis, ‘systemic deficiencies’ are just one example of a situation that could lead to rebuttal of the assumption that another Dublin State is safe. Uncertainty about adequate reception conditions for families is another. But surely this cannot be an exhaustive list.

On the second hypothesis, a ‘systemic deficiency’ would not exist only where an asylum system had entirely collapsed, but where some particular aspect of the system was malfunctioning regularly to some extent. By analogy, a car needs to be fixed not only when the brakes entirely fail to work, but also when the windshield wipers occasionally malfunction. The risk is far greater in the first case, but the second case shouldn’t be ignored either. Again, the problems in Tarakhel cannot be the only example of a flaw in the asylum system of a responsible Member State that needs to be fixed before asylum-seekers can be transferred there.

There isn’t much difference between these two possible interpretations of Tarakhel. Although the first interpretation is in principle more open-ended than the second one, it shouldn’t take too much imagination to argue that any particular problem an asylum-seeker might face in the responsible Member State is ‘systematic’ in this very broad sense. The second interpretation does give the CJEU more leeway to back down from its head-banging judgment in Abdullahi, and explain that this was also what it had meant by ‘systemic deficiencies’ all along.

Of course, given the strong insistence on the efficiency of the Dublin system in theAbdullahi judgment, this is obviously not what the Court had meant at the time. Yet the clear message from the Tarakhel case is that there is not a simple binary distinction between cases when all Dublin transfers should stop, on the one hand, and cases when all Dublin transfers should go ahead at full speed, on the other. Instead, like a traffic light, yesterday’s judgment creates an intermediate category of cases in which national administrations must proceed with caution. This will undoubtedly make the Dublin system more costly and complex to administer, but that is often the only way to ensure that human rights are protected effectively.

Barnard & Peers:  chapter 9, chapter 26