The Council adopted the Directive on legal aid for suspects or accused persons in criminal proceedings and in European arrest warrant proceedings. Legal aid is the financial or judicial support received by a suspect or accused person, who does not have the resources to cover the costs of the proceedings. The new rules will ensure that the right to legal aid is provided and the legal aid itself is offered in a uniform way across the EU. Suspects or accused persons should benefit from legal aid from the early stages of criminal proceedings and it will be granted under clear criteria defined in the Directive.
Frans Timmermans, First-Vice President in charge of the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, stated: "Anyone who is the subject of criminal proceedings has a right to legal protection and a lawyer they can afford. That is what the rule of law is about. Today we adopted rules that will ensure this across this Union."
Vĕra Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, said: "Legal aid is essential to guarantee access to a fair justice system that caters for everyone, including the poorest. We've strengthened procedural rights over the last years. Anyone suspected or accused in Europe will be guaranteed a fair trial. But there is no point in citizens having the right to access to a lawyer, if they cannot afford it. Therefore today's decision is crucial for the European area of justice and fundamental rights."
The new Directive provides for the following guarantees:
- Legal aid is granted swiftly
Legal aid will be grantedat the latest before questioning, especially by the police, or before certain investigative or evidence-gathering acts, as set out in in the Directive.
- Clear criteria to grant legal aid
Member States apply different tests to determine whether to grant legal aid: a means test (related to the resources of the person concerned including income and fortune), a merits test (related to necessity to ensure effective access to justice in the circumstances of the case) or both. The new rules set out clear criteria to establish these tests:
- If a Member State applies a means test, it should take into account all relevant and objective factors, such as the income, capital and family situation of the person concerned, the costs of legal assistance and the standard of living in the relevant Member State. This will help them determine whether suspects or accused persons lack sufficient resources to pay for legal assistance.
- If a Member State applies a merits test, it should take into account the seriousness of the offence, the complexity of the case and the severity of the penalty at stake, in order to determine whether the interests of justice require granting legal aid.
- Legal aid in European arrest warrant proceedings
There will be a right to legal aid in European arrest warrant proceedings. This right will apply both in the Member State that executes such an arrest warrant and – in criminal prosecution cases – also in the Member State where it has been issued.
- Better decision-making process on legal aid
The Directive ensures that decisions concerning legal aid are made diligently, and that people are informed in writing if their application is rejected in full or in part. It sets out rules on quality of legal aid and on training of staff involved in the decision-making process, including lawyers. In the event of a breach of the rights under this Directive, an effective remedy must be available.
Member States are required to transpose the Directive within 30 months after its publication in the Official Journal of the Union. These rights will be available as of May 2019.
This Directive will apply to all Member States, except Denmark, Ireland and the UK.
The Legal Aid Directive is the third and last Directive agreed from a package of proposals in the field of fair trial rights in criminal proceedings presented by the Commission in November 2013. Its adoption completes the EU Roadmap to strengthen procedural rights of suspected or accused people in criminal proceedings set up in 2009.
Significant progress has been achieved over the last years to strengthen the procedural rights of suspects and accused persons in the European Union. Since the adoption of the EU Roadmap to strengthen procedural rights of suspected or accused people in criminal proceedings (2009), five directives have been adopted. They provide for essential rights such as the right to interpretation and translation, the right to information and the right of access to a lawyer.
They also ensure the principle of presumption of innocence and the right to be present at one's trial and, most recently, procedural safeguards for children involved in criminal proceedings.
For more information
Details on procedural rights are available on DG Justice's website