The right to a fair trial is fundamental to the rule of law and democracy itself. It’s an absolute right, protecting victims and the accused alike. It requires that a fair hearing take place within a reasonable time before an independent tribunal. It applies to both criminal and civil proceedings, although some of its specifics are only relevant in criminal cases.
But there’s more to Article 6 than just your day in court. You must be allowed to present your case or defend the claim against you. The court has to give reasons for its decisions. And there must be equality between the parties involved.
In criminal cases, the accused also has the right to silence and participation – they’re entitled to be present, with some limited exceptions. Hearings and judgments must also be public – again except in some circumstances. And the defendant must be told the accusation, be allowed to prepare a defence and be given access to legal representation. Another key element of Article 6 is that every person charged is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
You’d be forgiven for wondering just how important all this is in Britain today. This is the land of the Magna Carta, which helped secure the great principle of jury trial back in 1215, after all. Surely the right to a fair hearing is as safe here as anywhere?
But is it? The so-called War on Terror has reminded us that Article 6 is as vital as ever.
Look at control orders; a regime imposing severe restrictions on anyone suspected of terrorist activity without anything approaching a proper trial. The person affected might not even know what the case is against them.
In 2009 the House of Lords held that control orders breached Article 6, but sadly they remain. The Coalition wants to ‘replace’ them with Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures – essentially rebranded control orders still outside the criminal justice system. And now ministers are seeking yet more emergency powers to forcibly relocate terror suspects.
So maybe your right to a fair trial – or any kind of hearing for that matter – is not necessarily safe in the hands of the State after all. At least we’ve got Article 6 – and the rest of the Human Rights Act – to challenge the powerful when they let us down.