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European Commission

Viviane Reding

Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner

Three Steps and a Leap Forward: Building fair trial rights across the EU step by step, day by day

Press Conference/Brussels

27 November 2013

"You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to a lawyer, and to have a lawyer present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense."

You would have all heard these words in the typical ‘Hollywood’ movie.

Well, now it is European Union law.

Justice must not only be done; it must also be seen to be done.

When I became the first EU Justice Commissioner in 2010 I promised to re-orient our policies in the field of criminal justice. Before 2010, Lady Justice was holding two swords and no scales. Since then the Commission has been taking action: to bring a new balance into justice policies through strengthening the rights and freedoms of our citizens; to ensure that European law guarantees a high standard of rights, notably with regards to the fairness of criminal proceedings.

The objective of our action is clear: There can be no area of justice and no mutual trust without common fundamental-rights standards based on our common values.

Since 2010, the Commission delivered. We proposed a Directive that protects citizens' rights to fair trial making sure that citizens have the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings. It was adopted in a record time of just 9 months.

We then took two more steps with directives on the right to information putting in place the Letter of Rights. Next came the ground breaking directive on the right to access to a lawyer and to communicate upon detention.

All three measures are now in the EU's Statute book. All are landmarks in protecting the right to a fair trial and defence, and Member States are obliged to transpose and implement them. We will monitor this.

These milestones have paved a new path. Today we are closing the remaining gaps in between the stones of this path:

  • If you are arrested anywhere in the EU you will get a letter of rights in a language you understand. But what if the right to remain silent is not on the list? … Because this right is not effective Europe-wide?

  • You have the right to a lawyer, but what if you cannot afford one?

  • If a child is arrested away from home, he or she will have the right to interpretation but what if they are too young to understand what the trial is actually about? How can we ensure a vulnerable person can really defend himself?

We have to finish what we started. Justice should know no borders in the European Union.

Today the Commission is taking 3 more steps forward with 5 proposals to strengthen rights to a fair trial of citizens in criminal proceedings throughout the European Union.

Let me explain what these 5 legal instruments (3 Directives and 2 Recommendations) are about:

First: we are proposing a directive on the presumption of innocence – making sure you really are innocent until proven guilty. This is not always a given. In a nutshell, it should always be for the prosecution to prove a suspect is guilty, and not for the suspect to prove he is innocent. This means a suspect cannot be considered guilty if he was never given the chance to defend himself by being present at trial. This means no one can infer guilt from a suspect's silence. Staying silent is not the same as saying 'I did it'. Any evidence obtained in breach of the right to remain silent cannot be used in court.

Second, we are proposing a directive on special safeguards for children involved in criminal proceedings. Children are vulnerable. They do not always understand the consequences of their actions. They should not be allowed to waive their right to a lawyer. Such action has consequences. Our responsibility is to protect the vulnerable. We want to make sure children receive the special care and protection they deserve. We are also recommending that Member States extend the same protection to other vulnerable suspects such as disabled people [Recommendation on procedural safeguards for vulnerable people].

Third, we are proposing a Directive on provisional legal aid which will cover the early stages of proceedings, when suspects are in most need of help. What good is access to a lawyer if you cannot afford to pay for one? We also want to make sure any suspect under a European Arrest Warrant has access to legal aid in both the country of issuance and the country of execution. Finally, we are recommending Member States use specific criteria when assessing if a person is eligible for legal aid [Recommendation on the right to legal aid].

These proposals will create concrete rights citizens can rely on. We are bringing the right to a fair trial to life. Everywhere in the European Union.

This is necessary to create a real European area of justice in the EU: an area where judicial decisions taken in one jurisdiction are enforced in other jurisdictions as easily as they are nationally. Above all this requires one thing: mutual trust.

We already have mutual recognition instruments, such as the European Arrest Warrant. But they cannot function efficiently without mutual trust in each other's justice systems.

Mutual trust means judiciaries trust each other's standards of fairness and justice. It also means citizens must trust in the fairness of proceedings and a sound protection of their rights when they are in a court in another country. It means a common area where citizens can, when abroad in the EU, expect the same level of rights as they have at home.

In short, it means justice across borders. And that is what we are doing today: providing further building blocks for the European area of justice.

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