The Council of Europe’s legal work is important in developing European legislation, harmonising and modernising the legal systems of all member states on the basis of the Council’s common standards. Its aim is to encourage the creation and development of democratic institutions and procedures nationally, regionally and locally and to promote respect for the rule of law.
- to promote law as an instrument of democracy, human rights and the rule of law;
- to make justice effective and available to every citizen;
- to find common solutions to the new legal and ethical problems arising from scientific and technological progress.
Improving the justice system
One of the Council’s main concerns is to promote an efficient and independent judicial system. This is reflected in its many legal instruments. Its work is to ensure the impartiality and independence of judges - the Consultative Council of European Judges plays an important role in that respect - and to promote practical measures to improve the quality and efficiency of the legal system, in particular through the European Commission on Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ). This body is responsible for assessing the judicial systems in member states.
The European Day of Civil Justice, launched jointly by the Council of Europe and the European Commission and held on 25 October every year aims to improve public understanding of the judicial system.
Training for the legal profession
To ensure that an effective judicial system respects the rule of law, the Council of Europe is involved in the training of all legal staff: judges, prosecutors, lawyers, bailiffs, court registrars and notaries as well as police and prison staff. The Organisation works to develop training structures, such as the Schools for Judges (in particular through the work of the Lisbon Network) and Police Academies.
The Council of Europe promotes direct contact between members of the legal profession and lays down guidelines for the organisation of the various branches of the legal profession. Regular meetings and conferences bring together people from all its branches, for example presidents of European Supreme Courts, judges, general prosecutors from around Europe and members of the Bar.
The fight against terrorism
Fighting terrorism through international co-operation has become one of the Council’s priorities. The Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism and its Protocol and the Convention on Extradition have been widely supported by both member and non-member states. Legislative work is ongoing: an action plan will adapt existing legal instruments to the new international context and strengthen co-operation in various fields. These include the fight against the financial sources of terrorism, special investigation techniques, the improvement of witness and police informant protection schemes, programmes to benefit victims and standards for identity documents. A report on concepts of “apologie du terrorisme” and “incitement to terrorism” has already been published.
Combating corruption, organised crime and money laundering
The Council of Europe takes a multidisciplinary approach to combating corruption, organised crime and money laundering. It is based on three inter-related pillars: European standards (Criminal Law Convention on Corruption and its Protocol, Civil Law Convention on Corruption, Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime and a series of recommendations and resolutions), monitoring compliance with these standards (GRECO for corruption, MONEYVAL for money laundering), and technical co-operation programmes to strengthen capacities to combat these crimes.
The protection of cyberspace
The Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime came into force on 1 July 2004. It is the first international treaty to criminalise offences committed via computer networks, dealing particularly with infringements of copyright, computer-related fraud, child pornography and violations of network security. The Additional Protocol to the Convention criminalises racist and xenophobic acts committed through computer systems.
The protection of children
The Council of Europe is particularly concerned to protect children. A Recommendation and Action Plan against the sexual exploitation of children was adopted at a European level in November 2001.
In civil law the protection offered to children has been strengthened by regulations ensuring regular contact between children and parents and dealing with custody and transfrontier access. It also addresses issues related to establishing parentage.
Bioethics, xenotransplantation, biotechnology and food security
The protection of human beings is fundamental in biomedical research. The Council of Europe was the first to draw up a Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine with additional protocols to cover the increasing number of scientific breakthroughs. They prohibit Human cloning and cover organ transplantation and biomedical research. Other protocols regarding human genetics and the status of human embryos and foetuses are under discussion.
In addition, the mistreatment of animals prompted the Council to adopt Conventions on the protection of animals, in particular during international transport or in breeding programmes.
Psychiatry and Human Rights
The Council of Europe also ensures legal protection for non-voluntary patients in psychiatric institutions (there is a specific recommendation for this purpose).
The Council of Europe co-operates with member states to ensure that their legislation meets European norms. This assistance covers all aspects of law, from the civil, criminal and administrative codes to specific laws such as those on bioethics or data protection. It provides expert opinions on legal texts.
The Council also helps member states to develop efficient legislative procedures and modern techniques for drafting new laws. This aims to make legal systems more coherent and comprehensible to the general public .
Constitutions and constitutional issues
The constitution of a state is its supreme legal text, establishing and organising its institutional system; it is the cornerstone of a state based on the rule of law. The Council of Europe is active in the constitutional debate in Europe and in seeking institutional solutions for the resolution of conflicts. The European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) is a forum where countries can pool information, exchange experience and discuss ideas and projects relating to constitutional issues.
Foreigners and citizens
As a forum for exchanging and gathering information, the Council of Europe seeks appropriate solutions through consensus on issues including naturalisation, asylum applications, the free movement of persons, statelessness and related legal difficulties. The European Convention on Nationality, the only international legal instrument in this field, is now in force.
The Council of Europe is drawing up guidelines on crime prevention and juvenile delinquency. It examines the efficiency of national prevention policies and outlines the principles which states are encouraged to observe to improve their effectiveness.
Operation of conventions in the criminal field
Several key legal instruments have been adopted; they include the Convention on Extradition, the Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters and the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. These international treaties are monitored and modified to work in practice. The Council of Europe actively encourages the implementation of the Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Police and internal security services
A European Code of Police Ethics was adopted in 2001 to support the reforms in member states. The application of this code was followed by a Specific Consultative Committee. The Code of Ethics is the basis for the Council’s co-operation with its member states.
The Council of Europe provides guidelines for member states to improve prison conditions. Parole, management of long-term prisoners and remand in custody are the main concerns at present. Alternatives to imprisonment are also under examination. Experts participating in Steering Groups are responsible for assisting member states in prison reform, particularly in South-Eastern European States and the Community of Independent States.
Public international law
The Council of Europe aims to create a framework for international co-operation to strengthen the role of public international law and influence developments in this field to encourage interdependence between states; it encourages discussions and the pooling of information and experience by promoting contact between legal advisers.
Administrative courts and public administration
The Council is particularly concerned to foster relations between legal administrations and citizens. Its monitoring mechanisms ensure that public authorities respect rules and that judges monitor administrative acts effectively.
The Council of Europe has made considerable efforts to harmonise family law norms. It deals directly with the individual’s difficulties in private life; it is especially active in protecting children and it adopted the European Convention on the Exercise of the Rights of Children.
The Council of Europe is the author of the only international legal text on the statute of civil society: the European Convention on the Recognition of the Legal Personality of International Non-Governmental Organisations. In 2003, the Council of Europe published fundamental principles on the legal status of NGOs. States wishing to provide a firm legal basis for NGOs working within their borders must enact these fundamental principles into their legislation.
All personal and medical data must be protected in the interests of individual’s right to privacy. This includes information collected and processed for statistical or insurance purposes, police and judicial data and data collected by video surveillance or smart card readings. Confidentiality is guaranteed by the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data, complemented by a Protocol on Supervisory Authorities and transfrontier Data Flows and by several other specific recommendations.