The Council of the European Union has taken a step towards digitalisation of legal procedures throughout the European community, with proposals agreed in December.
This forms part of the EU’s ongoing, post-Covid, project to transition many of the Union’s processes online.
As regards the digitalisation of legal matters, the Council has noted the increasing use of digital tools such as electronic filing of documents and video hearings. It welcomes this and states that “Member states should use more extensively digital tools for judicial proceedings without undermining fundamental principles such as the independence and impartiality of the courts”. This has led to the EU adopting a “digital by default principle”
In effect, the purpose of the new regulation and directive will be to ensure mutual recognition of Member States’ digital procedures through co-ordinating standards of use and software used. The new regulation does not mandate, but strongly encourages, the use of EU software tools, which are being developed for this purpose.
As regards surrender and mutual legal assistance in the European Union, the new regulations will attempt to bring much of this activity online. Whereas procedures for obtaining physical evidence and other methods of co-operation that cannot easily be conducted remotely will, naturally, remain unchanged, the “digital by default” principle will apply to any other forms of co-operation. This means Member States will be encouraged to use a decentralised IT system for requests, document transfers and communication.
Equally there will be more emphasis on the availability of video hearings between members states, opening up more possibilities for evidence to be given remotely, even where an individual has not been extradited to the requesting member state. Given Members States’ digitisation of their own procedures, it seems likely that third party countries will be encouraged to take a more online approach when dealing with member states.
It is unclear to what degree the software facilitating the digitisation of legal matters in the EU has yet been developed.
These proposals will now be presented to the European Parliament for negotiation with the Council.