Building a fully-fledged freedom and security area calls for progress in the creation of a single area of justice. A European dimension is often present in criminal matters. To fight a criminal organisation active in several EU countries, or to bring to justice an offender who tries to hide in a different EU country or also hear the testimony of a witness who is in a different country, judicial cooperation is necessary.
Strengthen judicial cooperation
When they need to take specific steps or execute certain decisions within the framework of criminal investigations or proceedings, national authorities may count on the assistance of criminal authorities in a different EU country.
Judicial cooperation in criminal matters is based on the principle of mutual recognition of judgements and judicial decisions by EU countries. It was introduced by the Maastricht Treaty under Title V (provisions on a common foreign and security policy).
The EU has worked in different areas in order to strengthen judicial cooperation between the criminal justice authorities in the EU countries.
Different forms of judicial cooperation
Mutual legal assistance is the traditional form of judicial cooperation.
A judicial authority sends a letter of request ("letter rogatory") to a foreign judicial authority to perform an action in its territory. For example, legal assistance may be requested to search a building or confiscate a property.
This form of judicial cooperation is not exclusive to EU members and may be slow and complex at times.
A more advanced form of judicial cooperation is the mutual recognition of judgements and judicial decisions.
Using EU agencies
The EU has set up specific structures to facilitate mutual assistance and support cooperation between judicial authorities:
- Eurojust: an EU body comprising experienced judges or prosecutors who support and strengthen coordination and cooperation between national authorities in relation to serious crime;
- European judicial network in criminal matters (EJN): a network of magistrates and prosecutors who act as contact points in EU countries to facilitate judicial cooperation.