Article 6 (like our right to liberty) is one of the most fundamental rights in supporting our democratic society. Although many of us will hopefully never have to ensure this right is invoked it is nonetheless central to ensuring we achieve justice. The right to a fair trial is set out as such:
1 In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law. Judgment shall be pronounced publicly but the press and public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interest of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society, where the interests of juveniles or the protection of the private life of the parties so require, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice.
2 Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.
3 Everyone charged with a criminal offence has the following minimum rights:
(a) to be informed promptly, in a language which he understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him;
(b) to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence;
(c) to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing or, if he has not sufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require;
(d) to examine or have examined witnesses against him and to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on his behalf under the same conditions as witnesses against him;
(e) to have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in court.
What does this mean?
The article sets out the minimum expectations one can have if they are set to be tried ‘in determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him’. As we discussed yesterday, every human has a right to liberty and under the Human Rights Act 1998, the UK has a positive obligation to protect that right from being infringed. Being detained and imprisoned (as can be the case following sentencing) can infringe that right if the procedure is not carried out precisely – hence the numerous provisions of Article 6. I’ve highlighted some of the key parts of the provision to briefly take you through what they mean.
Section 1 deals with the structure of a trial (i.e. what things are essential for it to be deemed a fair trial). Unsurprisingly, the first criteria for a fair trial is that it is fair and public (stay with me). What constitutes fairness here depends on the country you are applying the provision to. In the UK, we have the Criminal Procedure Rules which acts as guidance for what constitutes fairness in a trial (all fairly ‘common sense’ practices which ensure a person is given a chance to defend themselves) – the public part is self-explanatory.
Ensuring the trial is carried out by an independent and impartial tribunal is obviously essential, as if the judges were biased chances are they might not come to the correct decision. The UK’s way of ensuring this is through making sure the judiciary is a separate branch from the executive (government) and legislature (law-makers). This way there is no influence over the judges in the interests of the executive for example, and they can protect their ability to ensure justice, rather than potentially being influenced by the other branches of the sovereign’s objectives. Other practices such as vetting of the jury also occur, to protect the court’s unbiased environment.
The media coverage of Mr Jefferies implied he was guilty of Joanna Yates’ murder before any real investigations had been made – also influencing the police’s decision to arrest him.
All of the above protections are to ensure Section 2’s ‘presumption of innocence’ is maintained. Regardless of what the media can sometimes suggest (for example, look at the case of Christopher Jefferies), each requirement for a charge brought must be proven beyond reasonable doubt in trial, for a guilty verdict to be given. Here, rather than specific procedure rules, it is simply left with the judges and the jury in the trial, to ensure they sufficiently uphold this principle, in an effort to protect our right. With their being a strong subjective element to this, the threshold is not the same for everyone (regardless of the infinite number of cases that may be quoted to help the court decide) and there have been scenarios in recent history which have not presumed innocence in the UK (recent cases relating to terrorism being a big example in the UK, which I discuss below), but generally we’re quite good at providing justice in the courtroom here, so depending on a little belief in the system is not as bad as it may seem.
Section 3 of the article deals with the procedure before and during the trial. Again, it is a lot of common sense application; making sure it is explained why you are being tried in a language you actually understand, allowing you the time to come up with a better defence than “I was sleepwalking” or “my dog ate it” and if you can’t making sure you have access to a lawyer who may be able to put enough doubt in the judges mind about whether you were sleepwalking or not, that they find you not guilty.
So in summary, this article is to ensure the immensely important and often underrated ‘common sense’ principles are applied, to protect us from being chucked in prison for a crime we didn’t commit.
Has it been successful?
Mostly yes. The UK is generally regarded as having one of the best justice systems in the entire world. Globally-recognised judgments, some of the oldest and most reputable barrister chambers around and the wigs and cloaks judges wear to make them look like Scrooge’s ghosts. A truly amazing system. However, as with most things it is not perfect. Miscarriages of justice are relatively common, with terror cases being a particular example recently which have raised some worrying questions about fair trials. For example, during the mid-noughties, there was an enslaught of legislation that had been poorly structured; in an attempt to counter this new wave of terrorism 9/11 had introduced. This poor application of law (such as the laughable Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005) saw numerous cases of Article 6 being infringed due to the nature of the legislation (for example, the Belmarsh case who were detained without trial on suspicion of terrorist activity – clearly infringing their right to a fair trial…) and suddenly we were jumping from one bad piece of law to another, all whilst tarnishing our hard-earned reputation for justice in the name of being twitchy to terror.
So, like every other right we have so far analysed, the protection of this one is not perfect – there are certainly areas (especially for terror suspects) where our practices can be vastly improved. However, our right to a fair trial is a fantastic feather in our cap and one we predominantly take extra care in preserving. Hopefully now you all know what to look for if you ever face trial, or even better you are in a jury and can be ‘that guy’ who speaks as if they know the trial process better than Jamie Vardy knows how to score goals. Tomorrow, we look at our right to not be punished without law, before 3 days of tackling the rights that politicians just love to argue over at the moment; privacy, religion and expression.