A Measure of Last Resort? The practice of pre-trial detention decision-making in the EU


Pre-trial detention (depriving suspects and accused people of their liberty before the conclusion of a criminal case) is intended to be an exceptional measure, only to be used as necessary and proportionate and in compliance with the presumption of innocence and the right to liberty. Its use is only acceptable as a measure of last resort, in very limited circumstances. Unfortunately, in the EU as around the world, these strict limitations are not always respected.

The EU is facing a long-standing crisis in prison overcrowding that threatens to undermine mutual trust and the functioning and legality of mutual recognition instruments like the European Arrest Warrant. Overcrowding, and the rights violations it causes, is driven in part by excessive use of pre-trial detention, in contravention of regional and international standards. The European Commission and Parliament have, for the past five years, repeatedly recognised the need for improved standards of pre-trial detention. Recent decisions from the Court of Justice of the European Union have again pushed the need for regional legislation to the fore.

Given the concern expressed about excessive use of pre-trial detention in the EU, there is a surprising lack of information on the practical operation of procedural rules designed to ensure that detention is only used when strictly legal and necessary. In order to gain a realistic view of problems in practice on which to develop targeted national and regional solutions, Fair Trials has coordinated research in ten EU Member States (England and Wales, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Spain) to analyse the practice of pre-trial detention decision-making and the use of alternatives to detention. The research consisted of legal and statistical analysis, hearing monitoring, case-file reviews, a survey of defence lawyers, and qualitative interviews with prosecutors and judges, resulting in detailed reports. This report provides a high-level overview of the research and analysis from an EU regional perspective.