EU Watch

Should Italian Criminal Trials be able to run Forever?

Some people say that the statute of limitations is a way to escape justice, while others think that it is a way to escape delays in justice.

by Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights
The Italian Supreme Court

5 star movement wants to remove limitation of liability for criminal cases

The 5 Star Movement has presented an amendment to the anti-corruption law currently being discussed. This amendment introduces interruption to the periods of limitation after first-tier judgements, even if there is an acquittal. The aim was to make it possible for offences, the statute of limitation for which has expired, to be prosecuted anyway, regardless of the length of the trial. This amendment was eventually withdrawn, but the 5 Star Movement announced that it would soon be presented in a new text.

The statute of limitation provides a time limit for prosecuting crimes as after which it is no longer considered to be in the interest of the community to prosecute, or when prosecuting can become very difficult.

Time and justice are linked

Patrizio Gonnella, the present of CILD and Antigone has stated that time and justice are closely interlinked. Criminal trials have the ambitious task of retracing the truth or at least bringing the ‘procedural truth’ closer to the ‘historical truth’. The justice system must try to achieve this goal, considering on the one hand the general interest in establishing the dynamics of the facts that might have violated criminal law, and, on the other hand, respecting the right of the accused party to be able to defend themselves adequately. The more time that passes from the alleged crime being committed, the more difficult it becomes to precisely retrace what happened.

Conversely, it is the duty of the justice system to set a reasonable time within which to end trials. The word “reasonableness” does appear in the Constitution (Article 11) to define a fair trial. A person cannot be prosecuted for an ordinary crime 20 years after the fact, as this stops the accused – whether innocent or guilty – from living a normal life. It means ruining a life, and, if the person is innocent, holding trials so long after the fact can lead such people to despair. It is not in the public interest to keep trials going for years either. A person cannot be put on trial indefinitely.

Opposition to the reform

Those opposed to the reform of the statute of limitation, including many lawyers, argue that the way the period of limitation works in Italy is necessary precisely to protect defendants from having to go through excessively long trials and investigations. Italy is actually one of the European countries where judges spend the longest time concluding criminal trials: not only are trials longer than in the rest of Europe, but so are investigations. According to critics, changing the rules would lead to even longer investigations and trials.

The strongest objection is that the limitation period would be interrupted even for defendants who were acquitted in the first-tier judgement, putting them at risk of waiting years before a final judgement.

A possible solution

In Italy, the majority of trials have a time limit during the investigation phase. Between 60% and 70% of the total investigations never reach the trial stage because investigations last for years or because the files remain locked in the public prosecutor’s office.

One better solution might be to decriminalise many offences that account for a huge queue of trials that are clogging up Italian courtrooms.

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