Imagine you are on holiday in a neighboring country in one the EU member states. On your way back to your hotel, a fight breaks out on the street, and you are arrested along with anybody else who was unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. You are taken to the police station and thrown into a cell. You try to get information about why you are there and how long you will be kept, and you try to ask police officers to let you make a phone call, but you do not speak the language. The police ask you to sign documents, but you do not understand what they say. What do you do?
On 16 November 2011, your situation got a little bit safer. EU member states approved a draft directive—in effect an EU-wide law— to protect people’s right to information in criminal proceedings. The move marks an important step towards protecting the basic rights of all people accused or suspected of crimes, and ensuring that everybody gets the same protections, no matter where they are in the EU.
Under the new directive, every person who is arrested in any EU country must be informed of their rights in a language they understand. Authorities must give people a “letter of rights” to everybody who is arrested, written in simple, everyday language, listing their basic rights during criminal proceedings.
These basic rights include:
- the right to a lawyer;
- the right to remain silent;
- the right to be informed of the charge and, where appropriate, to have access to documents and evidence on the case file;
- the right to have consular authorities and one person informed (for example, a family member or employer),
- the right to interpretation and translation for those who do not understand the language of the proceedings; and
- the right to be brought promptly before a court following arrest.
The letter of rights does not create these rights. These rights already exist, in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. But this draft directive is hugely important, because people cannot properly exercise their rights unless they know what they are.
To make things easier for the member states, the EU Commission has written a template letter of rights and translated it into all 23 EU languages. Every police station, in every city, in every country across the EU should have copies of a letter of rights stored on their computer so that they can provide it in the correct language. It must be given to every person arrested, whether they ask for it or not.
Until now, the chance that you might be informed properly of your rights if you face criminal charges depended – quite arbitrarily – what country you happen to be in. Some countries only inform people of their rights orally, and some will not provide information unless it is demanded.
Now that it has been approved by the 27 EU member governments, the draft directive will pass to the European Parliament for adoption in the coming weeks, before final adoption by ministers meeting in the Council.
This proposal is the latest step towards the EU Council’s plan to implement comprehensive legislation covering all of the most important rights of defendants in criminal proceedings. The "roadmap" was developed after the Council recognized that not enough has been done at the European level to safeguard these fundamental rights.
The first measure in the Roadmap was the right to translation and interpretation. This has already been agreed to and EU states are in the process of implementing it into domestic laws. The next measure being debated by the EU concerns the right to access a lawyer and communicate with relatives, employers and consular authorities.
The Justice Initiative has blogged previously about the roadmap and about the reforms in some EU countries to protect the rights of suspects and accused. We will continue to monitor and report on these encouraging new developments.