The rights of accused people
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Fair Trials campaigns for systems that protect an individual’s fundamental rights during the process leading up to and following a trial. These rights are called procedural rights or due process rights, and even where they exist in law, they don’t always exist in practice.
Access to information
People accused of a crime should be given information about their rights and what they are being accused of, so that they can exercise their rights and defend themselves. If they have been arrested or detained, they should be given the reasons why. It’s vital that this information is communicated in a way that they understand. Fair Trials has worked with police, lawyers and plain language experts to produce plain language Letters of Rights in several European languages. Some people may need additional support to understand this information, for example, through an interpreter or translator.
Without this information, a person will not have a fair chance to present a defence, for example to gather evidence to counter claims made against them or provide an alibi.
Access to a lawyer
People need access to legal assistance so that they can understand their rights and the case that is being made against them. If the person cannot afford to pay for their own lawyer, the state should provide free legal assistance.
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 legal aid or other forms of free legal assistance leads to overwhelming caseloads and insufficient funding given to lawyers to work on each case. 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 immediately after they have been arrested.
Fair chance to prepare a defence
A person facing criminal charges must have the time, facilities and resources to prepare a defence. This right exists at all stages of the proceedings and encompasses the right to documents, files, and information gathered by law enforcement authorities to be used as evidence against a person. People need to have an opportunity to review and challenge evidence and how it is used.
Equality of arms
There needs to be a fair balance between the state and the accused. This means that people accused of crimes and their lawyers need have sufficient resources, time, and facilities to put forward their defence. During a trial itself, people must have a fair chance to present a defence. An accused person should be allowed to be present at hearings and should be given the chance to have their say in court. In general, people should also be given the right to call witnesses and examine or have examined witnesses in the same manner as the prosecution.
Many people accused of crimes face additional difficulties participating effectively in their own legal proceedings, for example, because they cannot speak the language of the court, or because they have a cognitive impairment, or serious mental health or neurodivergent condition. In such cases, they need to be provided an interpreter, intermediary, or other forms of appropriate additional support.
Right to a trial or hearing
The right to a fair trial also requires that people charged with offences be allowed to attend court and to participate effectively in a trial. This enables the court to interact with them and allows the person to hear and respond to the accusations. It also ensures that there is adequate public oversight of criminal proceedings.
In many countries, people are coerced into giving up their right to a trial – and their right to present a defence. In the US, 97% of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining where many people are coerced into pleading guilty to crimes even if they are innocent. Europe is also adopting trial waiver systems in order to process cases more quickly. In Latin America and other regions, we have seen the increased use of remote hearings, and many temporary measures introduced during the coronavirus pandemic are becoming permanent.
A right to a hearing is necessary for people to exercise their right to effective judicial protection, which protects and remedies violations of their fundamental rights by state authorities.
Right to appeal
Courts will always make mistakes so people need to have the right of appeal to a higher court. This is needed to redress injustice and can ensure that there is a consistent, fair and uniform interpretation of the law. People should also have the right to seek compensation for injustice or wrongful conviction.