"You have the right to… - a Letter of Rights". A new law to ensure defendants' right to information during criminal proceedings throughout the European Union has been published in the Official Journal – the EU's statute book. The 'Directive on the right to information in criminal proceedings' was proposed by the European Commission in July 2010, voted by the European Parliament on 13 December 2011 (see IP/11/1534) and agreed by national justice ministers on 27 April 2012 (see IP/12/430). This law ensures that anyone arrested or subject to a European Arrest Warrant in any EU Member State is given a Letter of Rights listing their basic rights during criminal proceedings. EU Member States now have two years to introduce the new rules in their national legal systems. Currently the right to a Letter of Rights is only available in around one third of Member States (Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and UK (England & Wales)).
"We now have in place another central pillar of a truly European area of Justice. The new law on the right to information will help to guarantee fair trials for everyone in the EU. It will ensure that anyone accused or suspected of a criminal offence is clearly and promptly informed of their rights," said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU's Justice Commissioner. "It will be especially useful for the millions of holiday makers and others who travel around the EU and who may find themselves involved in criminal proceedings: they will now have the explicit right to be informed of their rights in a language they understand. This will help safeguard against miscarriages of justice. I am now counting on Member States to transpose this EU-law swiftly into their national systems – and not wait until the last minute before the deadline – so that it becomes a tangible reality for our 500 million citizens".
The European Commission proposed the new law in July 2010 (IP/10/989) as part of a series of fair trial rights to be applied throughout the EU. It is the second measure, initiated by EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, designed to set common EU minimum standards in criminal cases. This will boost confidence in the EU’s area of justice. The European Parliament and Council approved the first proposal, which gave suspects the right to translation and interpretation, (IP/10/1305) in October 2010.
The Directive on the right to information will ensure that police and prosecutors provide suspects with information about their rights. Following an arrest, authorities will give this information in writing – in the form of a Letter of Rights – drafted in simple, everyday language. It will be provided to suspects upon arrest in all cases, whether they ask for it or not, and it will be translated if needed. EU countries are free to choose the exact wording of the Letter, but to save work the Commission proposed a model available in 22 EU languages (see Annex). This will provide consistency for people crossing borders and limit translation costs.
The Letter of Rights will contain practical details about the rights of persons arrested or detained, such as the right:
- to remain silent;
- to a lawyer;
- to be informed of the charge;
- to interpretation and translation in any language for those who do not understand the language of the proceedings;
- to be brought promptly before a court following arrest;
- to inform someone else about the arrest or detention.
The Letter of Rights will help to avoid miscarriages of justice and reduce the number of appeals.
At the moment, the chances that citizens will be properly informed of their rights if they are arrested and face criminal charges vary across the EU. In some Member States, suspects only receive oral information about their procedural rights, and in others the written information is not given unless requested.
Under Article 82(2) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, and with a view to facilitating the mutual recognition of judicial decisions and improving police and judicial cooperation on criminal matters, the EU can adopt measures to strengthen the rights of EU citizens, based on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The right to a fair trial and the right to a defence are set out in Articles 47 and 48 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights; as well as in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In June 2011, the Commission put forward a third measure to guarantee access to a lawyer and to communicate with relatives (IP/11/689). The proposal is currently under discussion in the European Parliament and in the Council.