Right to a fair trial

A fair and public hearing (or trial) 

You have the right to a fair and public hearing if:

  • you are charged with a criminal offence and have to go to court
  • a public authority is making a decision that has a decisive impact upon your civil rights or obligations.

Civil rights and obligations include rights and obligations that are recognised in different areas of UK law, including property law, planning law, family law, contract law and employment law.

It is a good idea to get further advice if you think the right to a fair and public hearing might apply to your case. 

What is a fair and public hearing?

The right to a fair and public hearing gives you the right to effective participation in a hearing that:

  • is held within a reasonable time
  • is held before an independent and impartial decision-maker
  • provides you with access to all relevant information
  • is open to the public (although the press and public can be excluded where the matter is highly sensitive)
  • allows you representation or an interpreter where appropriate
  • is followed by a public decision.

You also have the right to an explanation of how the court or decision-making authority reached its decision.

What rights do you have at a criminal trial?

You have the right to:

  • 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 it is in the interests of justice for you to have one
  • attend your trial;
  • access to all relevant information
  • put your side of the case at trial
  • question the main witness against you and call other witnesses
  • have an interpreter, if you need one.

Under the Human Rights Act, everybody must have equal access to the courts. This includes a right to a bring a civil case, although this right can be restricted, for example if you miss the time-limit for bringing a case or you keep bringing cases without merit.

See also the right to no punishment without law.

Restrictions

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

  • immigration law;
  • extradition;
  • tax; or
  • voting rights.

Nor does it give you an automatic right to an appeal or legal aid (funding) for civil cases (cases between individuals or organisations).

The right of access to the courts can be restricted, for example, if you:

  • keep bringing cases without merit;
  • are bankrupt;
  • are a minor; or
  • miss the time-limit for bringing a case.

Finally, there will be times when the public and press will not be allowed to access a hearing. Access can be denied where this is in the interests of protecting:

  • morals;
  • public order or national security;
  • children and young people; or
  • privacy.

The courts might also decide to exclude the public or press if they think that their involvement is contrary to the interests of justice.
 

What the law says

Article 6: The right to a fair and public hearing

1. 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. Judgment shall be pronounced publicly but the press and public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interest of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society, where the interests of juveniles or the protection of the private life of the parties so require, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice.

2. Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.

3. Everyone charged with a criminal offence has the following minimum rights:

a) to be informed promptly, in a language which he understands and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusation against him;

b) to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence;

c) to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing or, if he has not sufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require;

d) to examine or have examined witnesses against him and to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on his behalf under the same conditions as witnesses against him;

e) to have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in court.
 

Example case

H v United Kingdom (1987)

A mother who suffered with mental health problems had her child taken into care after a safety order was made to protect the child. Shortly after this she married, her mental health improved and she made applications to the courts for staying access and then for care and control, both of which were refused. The court then terminated the mother’s access to the child with a view to putting the child up for adoption. Over a period of two years and seven months, the child’s mother and her husband persistently but unsuccessfully approached the council seeking to re-establish contact. The council delayed considerably and failed to notify them that the child had already been placed with an adoptive family. An adoption order was subsequently made, which ended all connections between the child and the natural parents. Procedural delays had meant that by the time of the adoption hearing, the child had been with her adoptive parents for 19 months and the mother had not had access to the child for over three years. The court found that the delay by the council was in breach of the right to a fair hearing, particularly given the importance of what was at stake and the 'irreversibility' of adoption.

(Case summary taken from Human rights, human lives, Department for Constitutional Affairs, 2006.)

Last Updated: 09 Jun 2009