- When a person is charged with a crime, or involved in some other legal dispute, they have the right to a fair trial. This means a fair and public hearing, within a reasonable time, by an independent and impartial court.
- The European Court of Human Rights has highlighted thousands of cases of unfair trials - including many which led to the imprisonment of an innocent person.
- People have used the European Convention on Human Rights to get a retrial and to make sure that governments develop proper rules to avoid similar miscarriages of justice.
Saur Vallnet’s lawyer discovered a conflict of interest concerning a judge who decided on the company’s case. The European court ruled that the company was justifiably concerned about the judge’s impartiality. Andorra responded by bringing in new laws allowing national court decisions or judgments to be revised following a Strasbourg ruling finding a violation of the ECHR.
The European court found that Romania’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor had had no way to legally challenge her dismissal. Also, the government’s decision to dismiss her had violated her free speech because it was mostly in response to her public criticism of controversial legal reforms. Romania then changed the law to protect prosecutors from abusive removal from office.
Fourteen Roma children said their schools had racially discriminated against them. The Croatian courts disagreed, so the children brought their case to the European court, which ruled that their placement in Roma-only classes had violated their human rights. Croatia then took steps to end discrimination against Roma children in primary education, including by abolishing segregated classes.
The European court ruled that Italy’s decision to stop victims from receiving inflation-adjusted compensation breached their human rights. Many relied on the payments to cover ongoing medical costs. The court’s ‘pilot judgment’ found that many others had potentially been affected by the decision, resulting in Italy making back payments totalling hundreds of millions of euros to victims.
Following the collapse of communism, Albania decided that compensation should be granted to people who had rightful claims to lands seized under the communist regime. But most of the money was never paid. In response to a ‘pilot judgment’ from the European court, identifying a widespread problem in the country, Albania created a new, efficient compensation scheme and paid out millions to...
Ilgar Mammadov was detained after writing a blog post criticising the government. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that his detention was politically motivated. For the first time ever, the Council of Europe launched a special procedure against a member state over Azerbaijan’s response to the judgment. This eventually caused Azerbaijan to release Ilgar and quash his conviction.
Iceland’s highest court overturned a legal ruling which found that medical mistakes had been made immediately after the birth of Sara Lind Eggertsdóttir. The European court found that the proceedings were unfair because the Icelandic court trusted opinions from an expert body that lacked neutrality. This judgment led Iceland to improve the way its courts handle disputes over medical issues.
Hans Moor was exposed to asbestos during his work in the 1960s and 70s. This gave him cancer, which was diagnosed in 2004. Hans Moor died in 2005, aged 58. Just before his death, Mr Moor had brought a claim for damages against his former employer for failing to take precautions against exposure to asbestos. The claim was continued by his wife and children.
Legal aid system introduced after woman suffering from domestic violence was unable to access the courts
Mrs Airey wanted to be legally separated from her husband, who was allegedly a violent alcoholic. However, there was no legal aid and she could not afford the lawyers’ fees. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the lack of legal aid effectively denied Mrs Airey access to a court, breaching her basic rights. Legal aid for such cases was introduced in Ireland in the following year.
McDonald’s brought a successful libel case against two environmental activists, Helen Steel and David Morris, who could not afford a lawyer at the time of the trial. The European court found that the UK’s refusal to grant legal aid to Helen and David caused a breach of their rights. The UK now allows legal aid to be granted, in exceptional circumstances, in defamation cases.
The Conseil d’État rejected an environmental group’s challenge to a decision allowing a landfill site to be expanded because they did not include a statement of facts in their application. The European court ruled that this breached the group’s right to a fair trial. The judgment prompted the Conseil d’État to take a less formal approach when considering complaints.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that people living in a special nature protection area should have had the right to a full legal review of government plans to build a railway close to their homes. Sweden’s highest court has now changed its approach, strengthening people’s right to a legal review when the government makes similar decisions.
No lawyer was present when police interrogated 17-year-old Yusuf Salduz after he was arrested at a protest. Yusuf was convicted based on evidence that the European court ruled was unfairly gathered, in breach of his right to a fair trial. Turkey took steps to strengthen the right of access to a lawyer in police custody.
Anatoliy Burdov was exposed to radiation whilst working on the emergency response to the Chernobyl disaster. He was entitled to certain social benefits, but the authorities refused to pay - even when ordered to do so by Russian courts. The European court said that this violated Mr Burdov’s rights. As a result, reforms were introduced to improve the enforcement of judgments.
All of the Roma inhabitants of a village had their houses burnt down by other locals. The authorities were warned, but refused to intervene. After the attack, the authorities did not investigate properly and the courts failed to give the victims a fair trial. Their application to the European court led to compensation and local programmes to combat discrimination and exclusion.
Oleksandr Volkov was dismissed from his role as a Supreme Court judge. His lawyer argued that he had been the victim of political corruption, which sought to undermine the independence of the Ukrainian judiciary. The European court ruled that his dismissal had been filled with bias and manipulation, in breach of his basic rights. Mr Volkov was reinstated as a Supreme Court judge in 2015.
Neđo Ajdarić was 52 when he was given an unfair trial, wrongly convicted of three murders, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. He was released after winning his case at the European Court of Human Rights, and changes were introduced to help ensure fair trials in the future.
César Igual Coll was cleared of failing to pay family maintenance, because he was unemployed and had no money. However, his case went to appeal. The appeal court held no public hearing and no evidence was taken from him. Nevertheless, César was convicted and sentenced to jail. The European court ruled that he had been denied a fair hearing. Changes were made to protect fair trials in Spain.
Frits Winterwerp was detained in a psychiatric hospital. He said that he was not mentally ill and he should be released. However, he was repeatedly prevented from making his case in the Dutch courts, which kept extending his detention without hearing from him. The European court ruled this had violated his right to liberty. Reforms were made to protect people in Mr Winterwerp’s situation.
The European court identified numerous cases where legal proceedings in Lithuania had taken an unreasonably long time. One example was that of Donatas Šulcas, whose case lasted for almost nine years. Following rulings by the European court, a wide range of reforms were made to reduce delays in civil, commercial, administrative and criminal cases.
Dozens of applicants complained of excessive delays to legal proceedings in Germany. One was Rüdiger Rumpf, who waited for over 13 years to have an administrative issue decided upon. The European court identified a structural problem concerning a lack of remedies for excessively long proceedings in Germany. This led to significant reforms to tackle the problem.
Klaus and Yuri Kiladze were eleven and nine years old when their father was killed by the Soviet authorities. Their mother was then sent to a gulag, their family apartment was seized and they were taken into abusive State custody. Decades later, a Georgian law was passed establishing a right to compensation for victims of Soviet oppression. Yet the national courts still denied them justice.
DMD Group was involved in a valuable legal claim against other companies. A judge in charge of allocating cases arranged to hear the claim himself, then abruptly dismissed it. DMD Group suspected the judge had deliberately arranged to reject their case. The European court said that the rules allowing the judge to control the case had been unfair – leading to reforms to the justice system.
Ruža Jeličić was a citizen of the former Yugoslavia. She worked in Germany in the 1970s and 80s and kept savings of German marks in a bank in the former Yugoslavia. However, along with thousands of others with foreign currency savings, she was banned from withdrawing the money after moving back home. After Mrs Jeličić stopped working and her husband died, she had no money to live on.
Mrs M. had her legal dispute presided over by a judge who was closely related to two of the lawyers representing the other side. The European court ruled that Mrs M.’s fears of impartiality had been justified and her right to a fair trial had been breached.
Two men were convicted of a robbery on the basis of evidence which had been manipulated by police. The European court ruled that the defendants had an unfair trial. The law was changed to improve the identification of suspects and protect the right to a fair trial in Albania.
One night in the village of Gánovce-Filice, Roma villagers were beaten with baseball bats and iron bars by other locals. The European court ruled that the authorities failed to properly investigate or punish those responsible. The case was re-opened, and legal changes were made to help the authorities tackle racist crimes.
Olsi Kaçiu was tortured by police and forced to give a statement which was later used to convict him. The European court found that his torture and unfair trial had violated Mr Kaçiu’s basic rights. As a result of this case and others, a range of reforms was introduced to prevent the ill-treatment of detainees and the use of evidence obtained through ill-treatment.
Snežana Boucke had a baby daughter out of marriage. The father was ordered to pay child support. The authorities failed to make sure the order was enforced, and the payments were not made for 13 years. The European court ruled that this breached Snežana's right to have court rulings properly enforced. The case led to significant reforms to improve the enforcement of court orders.
Market trader Ágoston Kmetty was allegedly beaten for 3 hours by police officers. However, no charges were brought against any of them. The European court held that the prosecutor had never properly investigated – refusing even to question the officers allegedly involved. Subsequent changes improved the remedies available to victims to ensure that crimes are properly investigated.
Mr Millan wanted to appeal his case to the Constitutional Tribunal. However, the law said that a government body could refuse permission – which it did. Whilst the case was in Strasbourg, the government settled it – agreeing that people should be able to appeal without government permission.
Hundreds of applicants complained of excessively long proceedings in Turkish courts. One was Fatma Ormancı, whose claim that the government had failed to protect her husband from terrorism was undecided for almost 6 years. The European court found that applicants in over 280 cases faced excessively long delays in Turkish legal proceedings – leading to substantial reforms.
Peter Frommelt asked to be released whilst awaiting trial for financial crimes. When this was considered on appeal, neither he nor his lawyer were allowed to make any legal arguments. The European court ruled that this had been unfair. The procedures were changed, allowing people to make comments to a court in such circumstances.
"Totally insufficient" investigation of a suspicious death and the reform of criminal investigations
Tatiana Trufin’s brother was killed in suspicious circumstances. Despite evidence of an attack, the authorities did very little to investigate for the next 12 years. The European court ruled that their efforts had been totally insufficient. This influenced reforms to improve the effectiveness of criminal investigations in Romania.
Reforms to protect access to justice after applications to Strasbourg highlight unreasonably long legal proceedings
The European Court of Human Rights identified well over a thousand cases where Italian legal proceedings had taken an unreasonably long time. One example was the case of Mr Ceteroni, whose litigation about his family business had lasted for over a decade. A wide range of reforms were introduced to reduce delays.
Aleksandar Čaminski was attacked by five people. Charges were brought against the suspects, but it took 11 years for them to be brought to trial. The European court found that this delay was unreasonably long. Along with other cases, this helped bring about significant changes to cut the length of proceedings in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Mr C. was infected with HIV by a hospital blood transfusion. He claimed compensation. However, five years of delays in Danish courts meant that he died of AIDs before the case was examined. The European Court of Human Rights found that the delays had breached Mr C.’s right to have access to a court in a reasonable time. Danish court practice was changed to help avoid such delays in future.
Factsheets on the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights:
Article 6 – the right to a fair trial (civil) PDF (820 Ko)
Article 6 – the right to a fair trial (criminal) PDF (930 Ko)
Police arrest and assistance of a lawyer PDF (285 Ko)
Handbook on European law relating to access to justice PDF (2,130 Mo)
Handbook on Human Rights and Criminal Procedure PDF (2,150 Mo)