Defending civil and liberties rights

Letter of Rights in Europe

Directive 2012/13/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council on the right to information in criminal proceedings (hereafter: Directive 2012/13/EU) recognises the importance of providing suspects and accused persons with information on their rights as well as information on the accusation and access to the materials of the case against them.

The right to information is a crucial building block of the right to a fair trial, and without it other rights which exist in law are, in practice, illusory.

If a defendant does not know that s/he has a right to remain silent s/he is unlikely to exercise that right. This is particularly the case for defendants without prior experience regarding the criminal justice system.

If a defendant does not know that s/he has the right to confidential communication with a lawyer (and to have a lawyer present in interrogations), s/he is less likely to ask for a lawyer. Where countries provide a right to free legal representation, failure to inform defendants of this possibility could prevent them from requesting free legal advice.

If defendants are not informed of this right, they are unlikely to ask for an interpreter or for the translation of key documents.

Despite a clear right to the information above existing under the ECHR and the related case law, a major 2010 study, An EU-wide Letter of Rights: Towards Best Practice” highlighted an enormous variation across Europe in the level and accessibility of the information provided to defendants about their rights, and showed that an inaccessible, technical language was adopted in many “Letters of Rights” provided to detained defendants.

To address this problem, Directive 2012/13/EU specifically requires both information on procedural rights and also Letters of Rights designed for detained defendants to be provided in “simple and accessible language”.

In 2015, with the participation of Rights International Spain, the Lithuanian Human Rights Monitoring Institute, Fair Trials Europe and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee launched a two-year international research project to examine how the requirement for simple and accessible language for a Letter of Rights transpires in practice. The project aims to identify examples of transferable good practices, produce alternative Letters of Rights, and raise awareness about gaps in the implementation of the Right to Information Directive.

These aims should be achieved through research, a survey of stakeholders and sociolinguistic surveys. Since the launch of the project, an international desk review was carried out, a survey was conducted among the members of the Legal Experts Advisory Panel (an EU-wide network of experts in criminal justice and human rights), and an empirical research on the accessibility of the Letter of Rights was carried out in Hungary. The latter involved the testing of the accessibility of the current, official Letter of Rights, and the development of an alternative Letter of Rights by the HHC and experts.

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