EU ministers must protect right of access to a lawyer
(Brussels, 8 June 2012) As EU justice ministers meet today to discuss the latest in a package of laws on the right to a fair trial, Amnesty International has pressed them to resist calls for amendments which would threaten the rights of suspects and people accused of a crime.
“If you’re suspected or accused of a crime, it’s vital that you can speak confidentially to a lawyer from the outset of the investigation and, without exception, communicate with the outside world when you’re arrested. These rights are essential if we’re to safeguard people’s fundamental right to a fair trial”, said Nicolas Beger, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office. “Human rights must be protected against the threat of amendments which would gravely weaken them.”
The Justice & Home Affairs Council is about to adopt a general approach on the proposal for a directive allowing suspects and defendants access to a lawyer and to communicate on arrest. Amnesty International is concerned that the negotiations are undermining the proposal and eroding international safeguards. It believes that, if adopted, the proposed changes would undercut existing standards under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
For example, the Commission’s proposal acknowledged that anyone suspected or accused of a crime must have access to a lawyer as soon as they are questioned by police. The Council now proposes restricting this right to ’official interviews’. This would mean that someone ‘unofficially’ questioned by police would not be represented by a lawyer. One result might be that statements made at these ‘unofficial’ interviews in the absence of legal advice might then legitimately be used to convict the accused. It also means the authorities could legitimately deny people their right of access to a lawyer after interrogating them informally.
Another element of the Council’s revised proposal would curb suspects’ universal right to communicate privately and freely with their lawyer. In a wide range of vaguely-defined circumstances and where there are “compelling reasons”, EU countries will be entitled to exempt themselves from the principle of total client-lawyer confidentiality.
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