The right to counsel

Having access to a lawyer is integral to the right to a fair trial. It helps to prevent unlawful arrests, police brutality and miscarriages of justice. Fair Trials campaigns for arrested people to have access to legal counsel as soon as possible after they are arrested and before they are questioned by the police.

Why police station access to counsel is important

The right to have access to a lawyer, also known as the right to counsel, is fundamental to defending yourself if you are accused of a crime.

The decisions made at the very start of an investigation have a huge impact on its outcome so it’s important that people have access to a lawyer as early as possible and before they are interrogated by the police.

Lawyers can:

  • help people understand their rights – in particular, the right to remain silent;
  • gather information that may help them secure their release;
  • assess if someone is fit for interrogation and request medical help is needed;
  • and explain what is likely to happen during the process and why.

Police coercion and abuse

Police stations are coercive environments. People who are held in police custody are extremely vulnerable. They are isolated, and may have no contact with their friends, families or employers for days.

Police violence during arrest and following custody is a problem around the world. Many police forces still use coercive or deceptive interrogation techniques aimed at obtaining confessions, despite evidence that these techniques lead to false confessions and miscarriages of justice.

Lawyers can prevent, detect and challenge abuses by the police.

Access to counsel in the US

US citizens’ right to counsel is protected under the Constitution but in reality arrested people are almost never able to access counsel until, at the earliest, their first court hearing. Fair Trials is campaigning for people who have been arrested to have access to a lawyer before they are interrogated by the police.

Involving defense lawyers earlier can not only provide oversight over arrest, custody and detention but can also have a transformative effect on the entire criminal legal system. It has the potential to disrupt some of the key problems we face in the US: mass criminalization, mass incarceration, and police control. Lawyers in police custody can create systematic change to a number of criminal justice outcomes, by:

  • Challenging unlawful and abusive arrests, including those that do not lead to criminal charges, discouraging police from unnecessary street contact.
  • Reducing prosecutions and jail admissions by encouraging police and prosecutors to drop unworthy cases.
  • Identifying the vulnerabilities of arrested people and promoting diversion and treatment.
  • Identifying incidence and patterns of police misconduct and ill treatment of arrested people.
  • Improving communication channels and trust between police, community (including victims and witnesses), defenders and prosecutors.
  • Helping defense lawyers to prepare more comprehensively for arraignment, pre-trial detention and plea negotiations – reducing wait times and administrative hurdles.
  • Improving access to medical care and other essential needs of detained people.

Listen to our Legal and Policy Director talk about the right to counsel on the Decarceration nation podcast.