Defending the
Human Right
to a
Fair Trial

Understanding your rights in police custody

The European Union’s model of Letters of Rights

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Accessible Letters of Rights in France

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Notes of Advice

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What is the problem?

The right to information in criminal proceedings ensures that every arrested person knows why they have been arrested and what evidence has been collected against them. It also includes information on one’s own rights in case of arrest, such as the right to remain silent or the right to consult a lawyer.

In practice, people do not often know their rights. Even if they are notified of their rights, many people will not be able to fully understand them because custody is a high stress situation and because the language used is often complex and technical. Moreover, police authorities too often try to make people waive their rights, in particular calling a lawyer or remaining silent.

As a result, many people are not able to defend themselves and challenge their arrest, just because they do not know how to exercise their rights.

What do we want?

We want everyone arrested or suspected of a crime to be fully notified of their rights whilst in police custody, in a way that is understandable to them. This means tailoring the Letter of Rights to the specific needs of the person, especially if they belong to a vulnerable group such as children, foreign nationals, or people with mental disabilities.

We want Letters of Rights to be accessible to laypeople, who often do not have any legal background and therefore are not prepared to fully understand the scope of their rights.

What are we doing?

With the support of international law firm DLA Piper, we have mapped the state of things across 58 jurisdictions all over the world and produced an international research report to illustrate the findings. The research shows that written Letters of Rights are only mandatory in the EU and very few other countries (Australia, Iran, and Turkey).

Though a standard-bearer, the EU is far from perfect.

This is why in 2016, Fair Trials joined a coalition of NGOs (coordinated by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and including the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Lithuanian Human Rights Monitoring Institute, and Rights International Spain) to study the accessibility of Letters of Rights in Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Lithuania, and Spain and their compliance with the EU Directive on the Right to Information.

The resulting regional report highlighted a number of shortcomings, including:

  • Failure to deliver Letters of Rights to all people in police custody;
  • Little time given to people to read and understand the Letter;
  • Lacking information on certain rights;
  • Failure to provide written translations of the Letters of Rights to people who do not understand the national language;
  • Pressure by police authorities to dissuade people from exercising the rights set out in the Letter of Rights, especially the right of access to a lawyer and the right to silence;
  • Complex and technical language, making it virtually impossible for laypeople to understand their rights.

After the publication of the regional report, Fair Trials developed a brochure on the European model of Letters of Rights, as set out in the EU Directive on the Right to Information, which includes a guide for public authorities to re-write the domestic Letters of Rights using a clearer format and accessible language.