The Right to a Fair Trial
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If you are accused of a crime, you have the right to a fair trial to determine whether you are innocent or guilty. The right to a fair trial also includes ensuring that the process leading up to and following a trial protects an individual’s fundamental rights. In a prosecution, the individual faces the overwhelming power of the State. There needs to be equal access to justice and fair, humane and just criminal legal systems that redress this imbalance of power.
Fair trials help establish the truth, which is vital for everyone involved in a case whether they are a victim, witness or the accused. They serve to limit governmental abuse, promote transparency and help prevent miscarriages of justice, which can lead to people being imprisoned, or even killed, for crimes that they did not commit.
People need to have faith that if anyone accused of a crime will be treated fairly and humanely. Without fair trials, trust in government and the rule of law can collapse.
Threats to fair trials
Over 90% of countries have signed international agreements requiring them to ensure everyone gets a fair trial but many still fail to do so for a number of reasons.
Discrimination and bias, which can be both explicit and implicit, are embedded in criminal legal systems and institutions around the world. They affect outcomes at every stage of the criminal justice process, from policing and arrest through to sentencing and release. This means that minoritised and marginalised groups are more likely to be suspected of criminal behaviour, whether profiled by automated systems using biased date or by the police – in the UK, stop and search policies disproportionately affect Black communities. If arrested, minoritised and marginalised groups are more likely to be detained in prison while waiting for a trial and punished more severely if they are found guilty. In the US, Black and Latino people get worse plea bargain offers than white people, and often do not have access to adequately resourced counsel before l making a decision to waive their right to a trial. Many, including innocent accused people, still feel that it is better to accept a deal than to face a jury that may be inherently hostile to certain groups and the prospect of a vastly increased penalty after a trial.
Many politicians like to talk about being ‘tough on crime’ but societies would be safer if we did not use criminal legal systems to solve social problems, such as drug abuse. Punitive approaches that use the criminal process to address disfavoured social, economic or personal behaviour lead to overcriminalisation, which in turn leads to states having more criminal cases than they can cope with. States may try to find ways to impose punishments without a trial taking place, such as through plea bargaining or trial waivers. But states could instead try to reduce criminalisation – for example by focusing on social welfare policies that address poverty and discrimination.
Access to lawyers
In many countries, people who have been accused of a crime cannot afford or do not have access to a lawyer. Even in countries that offer free access to lawyers, not everyone gets effective legal representation because inadequate support for public defence leads to overwhelming caseloads. It’s crucial that anyone who has been accused of a crime has access to a lawyer at all stages of the legal process, not just the trial itself. In particular, people should be able to get help from their lawyers as soon as possible after their arrest.
States are increasingly using artificial intelligence and automated decision-making systems to profile people as at risk of committing a crime even if they have not done anything.
Law enforcement agencies use coercive tactics to induce people to confess to crimes or implicate others. In some states, this includes torture and inhumane or degrading behaviour.
Right now, more than three million people are being detained even though they have not been found guilty of a crime. Pre-trial detention is one of the harshest actions that a state can take against someone and can have devastating consequences. It can the lead to the loss of employment, housing and family rights, and inhibits the ability of the accused person to prepare a defence. Being held in pre-trial detention can affect how a judge or jury perceives someone and this can have an impact on the outcome of a case. High rates of pre-trial detention also lead to overcrowding and contribute to poor conditions in prisons.
No criminal legal system is perfect. Fair Trials campaigns to make criminal legal systems fair, equal and just to protect everyone’s right to a fair trial.