Innocent until proven guilty. We all say this without thinking about it. We think we know what it means, and we believe it to be inalienable. There are many ways in which it simply isn’t true. If a court has substantial grounds to believe that you might fail to surrender, interfere with witnesses or commit an offence on bail, it can send you to prison to await trial. Not something you might think should be done to someone who is truly innocent until proven guilty, but arguably not unreasonable in many cases. Often a court will simply rely on the “nature and seriousness of the offence” to justify one of the above reasons. Charged with a serious enough offence and you may now spend a year in prison waiting for your trial. More and more courtrooms are left empty to cut costs and you wait longer for your trial to take place.
Your right to a fair trial in domestic and international law
Article 6 of the Human Rights Act 1988 provides citizens in our country the right to a fair and public trial or hearing in relation to both criminal and civil matters. Section 2 of Article 6 states , “Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law”. You also have the following rights (this list is not exhaustive):
• to a trial which is fair, public, heard by an independent court or tribunal, and heard in a reasonable time.
• to be informed promptly, in detail, and in a language you understand, the nature and cause of the accusation against you;
• to have sufficient time and resources to prepare a defence;
• to defend yourself in person or with legal assistance of your own choosing;
• to examine and have examined witnesses against you, and to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on your behalf
• access to the free assistance of an interpreter if required.
This fundamental right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty is also an international human right under Article 11 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It states that “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty” and that “no one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed”.
Trial by media
Many people who have faced police investigation while under media scrutiny may be forgiven for feeling that they have already been tried before being prosecuted. Many media outlets appear less concerned with reporting facts and much more concerned about boosting ratings and clicks. The police investigation of Cliff Richard is a good example of how the media can be quick to point the finger with little thought for the ensuing reputational carnage. There are countless other examples of lives ruined when initial suspects, subsequently exonerated, are publicly named and shamed by the press. Voices arguing for suspect anonymity grow louder.
According to a www.fairtrials.org, this problem is endemic across the globe, and, unsurprisingly, it is migrants, refugees and/or Muslim suspects who often bear the brunt of such unbalanced reporting. The current White House occupant is fond of this criminal typecasting to play to the crowd.
It may come as no surprise that suspected terrorists feature here. Jack Letts from Oxford, also known as “Jihadi Jack” – who seemingly travelled to Syria to fight for Isis – has recently had his British Citizenship stripped despite not facing any form trial other than in the press. While Mr Letts has himself stated, according to some accounts, that he is “not innocent”, he had apparently hoped to face a fair trial in his home country. There are many examples internationally of where suspected terrorists have had their human rights removed; one only needs to look at the hundreds of detainees once held in Guantanamo Bay.
Following the introduction of a new series of civil powers, children as young as 12 may be given knife crime prevention orders (KCPOs) by magistrates if they are believed to be routinely carrying a knife. Opponents, including Baroness Lawrence, the mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, believe this will lead to the fast-tracked criminalisation of children without any requirement to prove they have committed a crime. Fear is, of course, a great lubricant for knee-jerk legislation, where even the wisdom of those such as Baroness Lawrence is ignored.
While it may seem that the right to justice is under attack across the globe, there are ongoing developments leading to increased fairness. Many countries in Europe have now made changes to reduce the potential for unfair trials, such as implementing rules around how suspects are restrained, transported, and held in Court such as. outlawing the use of cages or glass boxes within the Court which can increase the likelihood of being wrongly convicted.
The rights we have always accepted as inalienable cannot be taken for granted – they need defending as do many facets of a progressive and fair society. There is never room for complacency.
If you have been charged with a criminal offence, our criminal law team can help. You can contact us at email@example.com or call 0333 240 7373.
Stuart Matthews is a Senior Solicitor and Partner