What is a "right to a fair trial"?

Within a reasonable time frame, everyone has the right to a fair and public hearing. This applies to both criminal accusations and matters involving one’s civil rights and obligations. Hearings must take place in front of a legally established independent and impartial court or panel. If it is required to safeguard national security or public order, it is feasible to exclude the public from the hearing. A person accused with a criminal offense is deemed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and some minimal rights must be maintained throughout the course of the criminal investigation and prosecution. Some disputes (for example, disputes about immigration control) will fall outside the scope of this right.

Procedural guarantees

The right includes: 

  • the right to a fair hearing 
  • the right to a public hearing (although there are circumstances where it is permissible to exclude the public and press, for example to protect a child or national security interests)
  • the right to a hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal 
  • the right to a hearing within a reasonable time

What rights does a person have at a criminal trial?

  • be presumed innocent until you are proven guilty
  • be told as early as possible what you are accused of
  • remain silent
  • have enough time to prepare your case
  • legal aid (funding) for a lawyer if you cannot afford one and this is needed for justice to be served
  • attend your trial
  • access all the relevant information
  • put forward your side of the case at trial
  • question the main witness against you and call other witnesses, and
  • have an interpreter, if you need one

Are there any restrictions to this right?

The right to a fair and public hearing does not always apply to cases involving:

  • immigration law
  • extradition
  • tax, and
  • voting rights

This right also does not encompass the right to appeal. The right of access to the courts can be restricted, for example, if a person:

  • keep bringing cases without merit
  • miss the time-limit for bringing a case

Who protects this right?

The State is the main guarantor of human rights and thus needs to ensure that everyone has access to independent and impartial courts which consider cases and follow the appropriate procedural guarantees. Where a person’s rights are violated, the State can be held responsible and must grant compensation. But, a trial can only be fair and efficient if participants also fulfil their duties within it. For example, appear for the hearing and respect procedural deadlines.

International recognition of this right

The norms protecting the right to a fair trial were formulated after the end of the Second World War when the international community decided to set a common standard for protecting fundamental rights. 

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, which reads in Article 10:

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

This right was later incorporated in international and regional human rights conventions.

In context

  • Court & Fair trial
  • Freedom of expression

Sources

Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education