European Court rules denial of access to a lawyer does not breach minimum guarantees, in Simeonovi v. Bulgaria

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

On 12 May 2017, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights published its final judgment in the case of Simeonovi v. Bulgaria. By refusing to recognise that the denial of access to a lawyer for the first three days of his detention amounted to a breach of the right to legal defence or to the right to a fair trial, the case does little to ensure effective human rights protection in police custody.

Mr Simeonov, a Bulgarian national arrested in October 1999 on suspicion of armed robbery and murder, was denied the assistance of a lawyer for the first three days of his detention. Convinced that the denial to access a lawyer in the early hours of detention is a serious breach of minimum fair trial rights, in June 2016 the APT submitted a third party intervention in the case, drawing the Court’s attention to the particular vulnerability of suspects in police custody and the importance placed on the fundamental safeguard by various international jurisdictions.

In its judgment, the Grand Chamber accepted that Simeonov’s right to legal assistance had been denied for three days following his arrest, during which time Simeonov was likely interviewed by police in the absence of a lawyer. Yet, in spite of this conclusion, the court reasoned that the restriction had not irremediably infringed the fairness of the criminal proceedings as a whole.

“The right to access a lawyer promptly after police detention is a fundamental safeguard against torture, and is widely recognised as among the most effective ways in which to protect a person at risk of police coercion at the time when they are most vulnerable,” explains Matthew Sands, Legal Advisor at the Association for the Prevention of Torture. “The European Court’s ruling therefore risks reducing the value placed on this fundamental safeguard by States in the Council of Europe region.”

Despite the view held by the majority, five judges took dissenting views. These separate opinions are attached to the judgment, are critical of the legal reasoning of the majority, and find that there was a violation of the right to a fair trial and to legal assistance. It is hoped that these dissenting arguments will be used by advocates in future to reduce the chance that this fundamental safeguard will be challenged by the court again.

For more, please read the blog written by APT's Legal Adviser, Matthew Sands.

To read the APT written comments, please click here

To read the ECHR’s press release, please click here

To read the full judgment, please click here