Pete* is a British national who was driving his friend’s truck to France. He often drove this route—but on this occasion was stopped and searched at the border. The French customs officials found cannabis in the truck and Pete was arrested. He was interrogated for two days without being informed of his right see a lawyer and was forced to sign documents in French which he didn’t understand. For the next eight months he remained in pretrial detention without even being charged.
Pete’s case is not unusual. Increasing numbers of Europeans travel, work, and study in other EU member states—yet they are surprised to find that rights they had assumed would be available to them are not uniformly accorded across the EU.
Last week, in an historic move, the European Parliament backed legislation to improve the rights of criminal defendants. This first step will ensure that EU citizens facing criminal trials in another Member State may have the proceedings translated and interpreted into their own language. Thus, for future cases, someone like Pete would have core documents provided to him in English. Defendants will also have the right to interpretation during police questioning, court hearings, and communications with their lawyers. This is a huge step forward.
Translation is the first in a series of defendants' rights issues that the European Union is set to address over the coming few years. Next, the EU will tackle legislation concerning a “letter of rights” to be provided to people suspected or accused of a crime, outlining what protections they are entitled to under the law. Access to legal assistance and legal aid is also slated for review.
Implementing these measures not only protects the rights of individuals, but also builds trust among the criminal justice systems of EU member states. Strengthening these ties will help ensure that a judgment made in one EU country is recognized in another. With uniform standards and monitoring, countries can also be confident that anyone extradited to another EU member state will be defended effectively, and his or her rights will be protected.
It is important to keep the momentum going and to base new legislation on experience and best practice. To this end, the Open Society Justice Initiative, in collaboration with JUSTICE, the University of Maastricht, and the University of the West of England today launches the report Effective Criminal Defence in Europe. It documents the state of defense rights in eight EU member states and in Turkey, providing a series of recommendations geared towards improving the rights of criminal defendants and informing the upcoming legislation.
*This is an actual case that was documented by Fair Trials International, but the name has been changed here to protect the defendant’s confidentiality.