Scales of Justice

The Right to a Fair Trial

If you are accused of a crime, you have the right to a fair trial to determine whether you are innocent or guilty. This is an internationally recognised human right. Fair trials help establish the truth and are vital for everyone involved in a case. They are a cornerstone of democracy, helping to ensure fair and just societies, and limiting abuse by governments and state authorities.

The power of the state to arrest, prosecute and punish an individual is the most coercive use of state authority short of warfare. This power must be exercised with restraint and there must be safeguards in place to protect the rights of accused people throughout the criminal process. People who have been suspected of a crime should be treated with dignity and compassion, and if convicted, should not be defined by this act.

Protecting the right to a fair trial is not just about ensuring that the processes leading up to and following a trial protect an individual’s fundamental rights. It’s also about ensuring that our criminal legal systems, and the societies we live in, are fair, equal and just.

To achieve this vision, Fair Trials opposes overcriminalisation, the misuse of state power, and recourse to incarceration. We also work to eliminate the discrimination and bias that is embedded in criminal legal systems around the world. Find out more about campaigns.

The right to a fair trial is recognised internationally as a fundamental human right and countries are required to respect it. Fair Trials works to uphold this right in Europe, the UK, the US and Latin America.

Fair Trials
Fairness, equality, justice

Presumption of innocence

A fundamental principle behind the right to a fair trial is that every person should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. But in practice there are many ways that this right is undermined. Accused people are often treated as criminals before they have had their day in court, for example when law enforcement parade arrested people through public places so they can be photographed by the media – also known as perp walks or by requiring accused persons to wear measures of restraint that make someone appear dangerous. The presumption of innocence is also undermined by mass surveillance, the use of artificial intelligence to profile people, coercive policing practices and pre-trial detention.

It is the responsibility of the state to prove that someone is guilty, not for someone who is accused of a crime to prove their innocence. Equally, it is the responsibility of the state to prove that someone should be detained. People should not be coerced into confessing to a crime or to incriminate themselves through abusive interrogation tactics or by the threat of enhanced punishment for the assertion of fundamental rights. In general, if someone exercises their right to silence, it should not be used as evidence of guilt or as a reason to place them in pre-trial detention, and nor should they be penalised for it.

Being convicted of a crime can have serious, sometimes devastating, consequences for the convicted person, their family and wider community. Therefore, states should prove that it is necessary to bring a prosecution and then must prove guilt to a high standard. If there is ‘reasonable doubt’, an accused person must be given the benefit of the doubt and found not guilty of the charge.

Justice is best served if trials take place without undue delay. This helps protect the reliability of evidence and minimise the human impact of criminal proceedings on everyone involved. However, efficiency should not be prioritised over justice.

The rule of law

The rule of law requires state authorities to operate within the law and to be held to account. It also means that everyone within a state is subject to the same laws. Nobody, however rich or powerful, is above the law.

The rule of law means that something should only be a crime if it is prohibited by a law that has been created publicly and following a proper process that clearly establishes both the prohibited act and the requisite mental state to establish criminality. This is critical so that  people can understand what is and is not allowed.

New criminal laws can only apply to future actions and not retrospectively. If something was not considered a crime when it was carried out, then it is not unlawful. If a law is repealed or overturned, people who were previously convicted are entitled to redress.

The rule of law requires criminal laws to be enforced in a uniform way. This can mean that special measures are needed to give some people a fair chance to present their defence. For example, some people may need an interpreter to make sure that they understand their rights.  Children and vulnerable adults may need additional support so that they can take part effectively in criminal proceedings.

Courts must be impartial and independent, and created by and subject to the law. Those who are empowered to   determine whether an accused person is subjected to pretrial detention, the manner and extent of investigation, or ultimately to decide whether the accused is guilty and impose a sentence  must be neutral and make a fair assessment of the facts.