Fair trial defenders meet in Sofia to discuss threats to justice in Europe at the time of the Bulgarian EU Presidency


Fair trial defenders from across Europe are meeting in Bulgaria, the country currently holding the EU Presidency, on 9 and 10 March. Over 80 members of the Legal Experts Advisory Panel (LEAP) – the European network of criminal defence lawyers, academics, and NGO activists fighting to uphold the right to a fair trial in their national jurisdictions – coming from 26 countries of the EU will descend on Sofia to discuss a host of critical challenges in the fight to ensure that  fundamental human rights are respected in European criminal justice systems and to plan how to overcome them. The LEAP network is coordinated by Fair Trials, the global criminal justice watchdog, and has been at the forefront of the development of EU law protecting the right to a fair trial. Critical issues to be discussed at the conference, outlined in more depth below, include threats to the fundamental rights to access a lawyer and to a trial, and the way in which criminal justice is increasingly being viewed solely through the lens of public security at the expense of human rights.

Threats to the right to access to a lawyer

On the morning of March 9, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the leading civil liberties organisation in Bulgaria, will be hosting an event on the right to access a lawyer in criminal proceedings. During the event, civil society organisations from five countries – Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia – will present findings from their research into the extent to which those countries are complying with EU obligations to guarantee a lawyer to persons caught up in criminal proceedings. Representatives from the Bulgarian EU Presidency and the European Commission will give their perspectives on access to a lawyer, while experts on the European Convention on Human Rights – Zdravka Kalajdzhieva, a former judge of the European Court of Human Rights, and Jeremy McBride, a renowned scholar and human rights lawyer – will discuss developments before the European Court of Human Rights. Ralph Bunche, Fair Trials’ European Regional Director, will then discuss developments and emerging threats to this basic right in Europe, highlighting the need for a robust enforcement of EU law at this critical time.

Impact on human rights in criminal justice of the European Agenda on Security

The LEAP Annual Conference will follow, in the same location, shortly after the conclusion of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee event, and will open with a session to discuss the ways in which the European Agenda on Security impact respect for human rights in criminal proceedings. The session will be opened by Jago Russell, Fair Trials’s CEO, who will outline global trends undermining the right to a fair trial, and Krassimir Kanev, Chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, who will discuss the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee’s position on the security-driven priorities of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU. Breakout sessions will then explore in more depth key aspects of the European Agenda on Security as it relates to cross-border cooperation in criminal justice: counter-terrorism, extradition, and cross-border evidence sharing. Nick Vamos, a global expert on cross-border evidence sharing, will discuss how existing mechanisms can undermine or be used to protect defence rights. Human rights lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, will discuss how terrorism-related measures are impacting fair trial rights in Spain. And Fair Trials’ Researcher Jon Ewing will present cases highlighting the impact that overuse of  European Arrest Warrants is having on the lives and rights of people subject to them.

The trend to dispense justice without a trial

The morning of Saturday March 10 will be used to discuss critical emerging threats to the right to a fair trial, in particular the increasing trend for cases to be concluded outside of traditional trials. The session will be opened by U.S. criminal defence lawyer Jerome Buting – known to the wider public for being one of the defenders of Steven Avery, whose story was told in the award-winning Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer – who will reflect on how the U.S. experience in this regard can informEuropean criminal justice reform. During breakout sessions, critical issues to be discussed include the trend towards trying cases in the media rather than in court, the global spread of systems that allow defendants to waive their rights to a trial (such as plea bargaining), and the tools that prosecutors use to improperly encourage such waivers, such as the ability to deprive suspects of their liberty or property prior to conviction. Italian criminal defence lawyer Nicola Canestrini will talk about how investigating authorities in Italy violate the presumption of innocence by trying cases in the media. Stefan Schumann, professor of criminal procedural law at the Johannes Kepler University (Vienna), will discuss a recent EU law that encourages the use of measures to confiscate defendants’ property before conviction. And Fair Trials’ Senior Lawyer, Laure Baudrihaye-Gérard, will present the organisation’s work to document the spread of trial waiver systems around the world.

Fighting back

Saturday afternoon, the LEAP will gather to discuss how it can help address these critical challenges. LEAP members will meet in their national groups to identify key issues that they can address together in their countries in the coming year. They will also meet in groups to discuss critical Europe-wide initiatives that LEAP members will work on together. The JUSTICIA European Rights Network, a network within LEAP of 19 leading civil liberties organisations from across Europe, will meet to discuss research it is conducting into discrimination in European criminal justice systems, following a presentation of this research by Irmina Pacho, Legal Officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative. Criminal defence lawyer Jaanus Tehver will lead a discussion on the LEAP’s campaign for better implementation of judgements of the European Court of Human Rights. And UK barrister Alex Tinsley and Estonian academic, Anneli Soo, will lead a discussion on how Fair Trials’ recent interventions before the European Court of Human Rights potentially indicate a need for litigation before the Court of Justice of the European Union on issues relating to the European Arrest Warrant and the right to access a lawyer in criminal proceedings.

Information for the Press

This event is by invitation-only. However, members of the media are invited to attend plenary discussions on human rights and security (March 9 at 14.45-15.30) and on justice without a trial (March 10 at 9.30-10.15). Media representatives interested in attending those sessions should contact Gianluca Cesaro at gianluca.cesaro@faitrials.net for further information.


This event is co-funded by the Justice Program of the European Union