Justice and fair trials

Justice is at the heart of a democratic society. It means laws should apply equally to all, and that everyone should have the right to a fair trial.

Individuals should also be able to bring their disputes before an independent judge, and challenge government action which adversely affects them.

These fundamental principles have been developed by our courts over centuries, and are now given effect partly through Article 6 of the Human Rights Act which says:

In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.

Article 6 also sets out a number of specific rights which apply to criminal defendants, such as the presumption of innocence, the right to be represented by a lawyer of your choice and the right to cross-examine witnesses against you.

Threats to fair trial

Fairness has long been a key principle of our common law legal system. But in recent years the right to a fair trial has faced significant threats, which Liberty continues to challenge:

  • Britain has signed up to “fast-track” extradition treaties which prevent British courts from considering whether there is evidence to justify the extradition request.
  • The line between criminal and civil law has been dangerously blurred by the widespread use of ASBOs and other civil orders.
  • Some police powers of stop and search are so broad that they are arbitrary and effectively impossible to challenge.
  • A parallel system of secret courts and secret evidence has been developed under which those accused of terrorism can be left languishing on control orders for years on end without being told why and without being able to challenge the suspicions against them. The Government's Justice and Security Act has allowed dirty secrets to be hidden from open courts, the press and public.
  • The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act has put publicly funded legal advice and representation beyond the reach of vast swathes of the British population.

If we are all to share in our country’s freedoms and prosperity, we must therefore protect the core elements of justice: the rule of law, respect for human rights and civil liberties and access to justice.