Human Rights Series: Is Having an Access to a Lawyer in a Criminal Case a Human Right?

Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) sets minimum rights for a fair trial. ECHR Article 6 defines the matters in which each individual has a right to be heard expressly by a tribunal and that the proceedings must be fair. Is having an access to a lawyer in a criminal case a human right?

The right to access a lawyer is derived from ECHR Article 6(3)(b). The article states that everyone charged with a criminal offence has a right to legal assistance of their own choosing. The right to be effectively defended by a lawyer has been recognised as a fundamental element of a fair trial in the case Salduz v Turkey of The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In the case Salduz v Turkey, the ECtHR stated that the presence of a lawyer helps to ensure respect for the right of an accused not to incriminate himself. The ECtHR also stated that an early access to a lawyer was part of the procedural safeguards. In the case Dayanan v Turkey, the ECtHR also held that, as a rule, suspects should be granted access to a lawyer from the moment they are taken into police custody or pre-trial detention.

However, in specific circumstances the access to a lawyer can be delayed if there are specific compelling reasons, such as urgent purpose of protecting life and preventing serious damage to property. In the case Ibrahim v United Kingdom the ECtHR held that “an exceptionally serious and imminent threat to public safety”, specifically the possibility of loss of life on a large scale and the risk of further terrorist attacks might justify a delay in the access of a lawyer. In particular, if this kind of situation needs immediate actions by authorities and suspects are not forced to self-incriminate themselves.

It should also be noted that if the accused did not have an access to a lawyer during their pre-trial stage, alone that matter is not necessarily an infringement of Article 6 because the fairness of a trial should be evaluated as a whole. The access to a lawyer during pre-trials is not an absolute value, more important is that the accused actually has an access to practical and effective safeguards during proceedings, assessed as a whole and in the light of the entirety of the proceedings. In the light of cases Imbrioscia v Switzerland and Brennan v United Kingdom the absence of a lawyer during police interviews is not necessarily incompatible with the right to a fair trial if the accused has otherwise received a fair hearing and a fair trial with a presence of a lawyer, and the fairness of the trial is not seriously prejudiced by an initial failure in the requirements of the Article 6(3).

Legislation and cases:
1. Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights, as amended) (ECHR)
2. Brennan v United Kingdom (2002) 34 EHRR 18
3. Dayanan v Turkey App no 7377/03 (ECtHR, 13 October 2009)
4. Ibrahim v United Kingdom (2015) 61 EHRR 9
5. Imbrioscia v Switzerland (1994) 17 EHRR 441
6. Salduz v Turkey (2009) 49 EHRR 19

26 November 2017

Lauri Miikkulainen
Associate Trainee

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