December 19, 2017
The right to a lawyer is, for anyone accused of a crime, the gateway to a fair trial. Most people going through the legal system aren’t experts, and it can be a terrifying and confusing experience. That’s why the presence of someone who understands the system is so important.
Fair Trials has submitted an intervention in the case of Beuze vs. Belgium, which could have wide-ranging effects on the right to early access to a lawyer in criminal cases across Europe.
The right to a lawyer is a key element of international and regional standards for a fair trial. In 2008, the European Court of Human Rights concluded in Salduz v Turkey that while there may sometimes be compelling circumstances that justify denying someone access to a lawyer, anything that a suspect says without a lawyer present cannot be used for the purpose of convicting them at trial. This groundbreaking decision had a significant impact. Individual EU states amended their criminal procedure codes; the EU passed its own law making the Salduzprinciple directly enforceable in member states’ courts; and police across the EU were required to recognise that bypassing a suspect’s right to a lawyer was futile, as any evidence collected would be worthless.
But the post-Salduz wave of reform hit the rocks in September 2016, when the Court allowed concerns about security threats to push it off course. A case involving four men convicted of terrorism offences, following a failed attack on the London Underground in July 2005 (Ibrahim and Others v UK), came before the Court. In line with UK law, the four men were refused legal representation during initial “safety” interviews. The Court had to decide whether this refusal—and the subsequent use of evidence collected during those initial interviews—represented a violation of the defendants’ right to a fair trial.
Fair Trials, in its submission to the Court, did not take issue with the denial of access to a lawyer—after all, it was believed the four accused knew the whereabouts of unexploded bombs and that taking their initial statements promptly could help prevent an attack. However, the submission argued that the evidence obtained during the interviews should not have been used in the subsequent criminal trials.