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Accetto Chudi

Statute of Limitations according to Italy's Government for Change

by P. Paracchini

taly's justice system has long been one of the most dysfunctional in Europe, especially when it comes to putting away alleged mafia or white-collar criminals.

Prosecutors say it is all but impossible to reach a definitive sentence for a multitude of financial crimes within the prescribed time frame, which is seldom more than eight years. That's partly because legal cases take so long in Italy. But it is also because Italy is unique in Europe, even among the other civil law systems:

Its statute of limitations starts from the moment an alleged crime is supposed to have been committed rather than from the point it is discovered, and the time limit is not extended when a defendant is put under investigation, indicted or judged. No other country has both rules!

In 1988 the Italian criminal process underwent substantial reform modeled on what done in common-law jurisdictions to bring Italy's outdated inquisitorial system more in line with modern legal thought and practice. Indeed, Italy's criminal law judicial system and process was rooted in long-standing legal tradition heavily biased in favor of the state's virtually unlimited financial resources (if compared to those of individual suspects) and absolute monopoly of law enforcement, including police, public prosecutors and judges. What the reform did or tried to do was to increase those institutions that make a trial "adversarial" as opposed to "inquisitorial" among the "parties" (to a trial), i.e., the public prosecutor, the accused or defendant and judge. Today such "parties" thanks to the reform have theoretically been placed on an equal footing with equal access to the evidence gathered by the police and prosecution.

Notwithstanding the reform of 1988, Italy remains light years away not only from common-law criminal trials but from civil law criminal trials of other EU jurisdictions as well! Despite the Italian Constitution, heralded by comic Roberto Benigni as the "the most beautiful in the World" the concept of a speedy trial is virtually unknown. The Constitution, which Benigni swears by, talks of a "reasonable duration" (art. 111). That, in a country where case law does not have the same place, authority or purpose as it does in common-law jurisdictions and where the principle of stare decisis is non-esistant, "reasonable duration" is practically meaningless, as are other institutions known to Italian law but either defined differently or applied "loosely" as opposed to "strictly" such as, habeas corpus, ne bis in idem (latin for double jeopardy) or what under Italian law constitutes a legal search and seizure by the police, just to name a few. The Government for Change seems intent on completing the reform of the Italian criminal law process begun in 1988.

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