European e-Justice in the Digital Decade – building a Digital citizenship (some remarks on the importance of European e-Justice to Digital citizenship effectiveness)

Joana Covelo de Abreu (Editor and Jean Monnet Module eUjust Coordinator), Alessandra Silveira and Pedro Madeira Froufe (Editors and Key Staff Members of the Jean Monnet Module eUjust)

The European Union established that, until 2030, it will pursue a Digital Decade as one of its primal public interests. In fact, COVID-19 fastened digitalization path in the European Union since it made digital environment as imperative in our daily lives as offline engagement. However, if it showcased major digital opportunities, it also exposed vulnerabilities of the digital space and enhanced a new phenomenon: the one relating to digital poverty, focusing on those that, by lacking infrastructural and/or educational background, are left outside the digital world. This is one of the visible faces of a larger problem of this decade: the one related to the digital divide which, besides emerging on infrastructural level – not only between well-connected urban areas and rural and remote territories, but also between those that can fully benefit from an enriched, accessible and secure digital space with a full range of services and those who cannot –, it also appears, nowadays, with i) a commercial repercussion, between those businesses with online expression and those that have not reached that point; and ii) a literacy lack, between those that grasp, at least, basic digital skills from those that do not possess them.

In this sense, the European Commission focused its attention, in the 2030 Digital Compass [COM(2021) 118 final], on pursuing “digital policies that empower people and businesses to seize a human centred, sustainable and more prosperous digital future”. However, there is also a worry on making this path under the European way, i.e., by promoting the European values and objectives. Therefore, the European way to digitalization “is about solidarity, prosperity and sustainability, anchored in empowerment of its citizens and businesses, ensuring the security and resilience of its digital ecosystem and supply chains”.

In this sense, some objectives were drawn to surpass this digital divide, from each we perceive the following as relevant to this approach: one relating to infrastructural preparation, aligning digital offer between rural and urban areas and upscaling new digital offers (for instance, by promoting 5G connectivity in all Member States); the other relating to digital literacy, so people can express online as they express themselves offline, but being (or becoming) aware that their rights are equally binding in those two environments and that there are means to react to online violations as there are to offline ones.

On justice domains, the Digital Decade aims the digital transformation to enable modern and efficient justice systems, enforcement of consumer rights and an increased effectiveness of public action including law enforcement and investigation capacities since “what is illegal offline is also illegal online, and law enforcement must be best equipped to deal with more and more sophisticated digital crimes” and other illegal behaviours. Insofar, there is a need to promote both active and passive digital literacy also on justice domains, since people in general have to be aware of their rights (and their online expression) but also judicial operators at large must be sensitized to the digital impact on justice fields. In fact, the way allegations will start to be made will be different as new online disputes will widen the range of legal actions and, furthermore, will increase cross-border litigation; on the other side, judicial exercise will also be under new ways of pressure (that aim at impacting on its independence, impartiality and due time decisions’ dimensions of effective judicial protection) but also it can experience some advantages of implementing new digital tools.

As advanced in the 2021 Annual Report on the Application of CFREU “Protecting fundamental rights in the Digital Age” [COM(2021) 819 final], effective judicial protection was also under equation: by stressing the need of “empowering civil society organisations, rights defenders and justice practitioners”, it was perceived as crucial to promote and to protect fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law by “raising people’s awareness about their rights and helping them receive effective judicial protection”. Furthermore, in order to prepare judges and other justice practitioners to new digital challenges posed to fundamental rights, the Commission will also promote capacity building and awareness on the Charter through a new European judicial training strategy set for the time frame of 2021-2024. In the same sense, training material destined to judicial operators is now made available at the European Training Platform (ETP), based in the e-Justice portal, continuously built to work as a true one-stop shop on justice fields in the European Union. Already in 2022, a draft proposal of a European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade [COM(2022) 28 final], that will be jointly adopted by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission, in its preamble, also understands that as “[t]he digital transformation affects every aspect of people’s lives” (whereas 1), “[t]he democratic oversight of the digital society and economy should be further strengthened, in full respect of the rule of law principles, effective justice and law enforcement” (whereas 6).

In this sense, the Module Jean Monnet eUjust (eujust.direito.uminho.pt) aims at dealing with these new demands while understanding them under the EU Procedure (presented in wider terms), since it both engages ECJ and national courts and, therefore, relates to all digitalization paths that are being developed before them and to promote effective judicial protection. Furthermore, it also aims at tackling new digital and technological efforts and challenges that can emerge to the European administration of justice. In this sense, from 14th to 18th March 2022 there will be held an Online Spring School, that corresponds to the 3rd Edition of an Intensive Course promoted under the Module where European and national academics, legal practitioners, stakeholders, policy makers and judges will be able to expose e-Justice paradigm in practice while equating new and disruptive challenges it may pose.

In fact, a new citizenship is emerging in the European Union – the one that also expresses itself in the online scene and that has been called a Digital Citizenship. However, its vivid expression only comes to light when those that can benefit from the citizen characterization are able to understand the rights emerging from it and the ways they have to enforce them. Insofar, understanding nowadays e-Justice paramount becomes indispensable to this Digital Citizenship can become a reality.

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