All children regardless of their age must have access to procedural rights when they are accused of criminal acts, the Council of Europe’s European Committee of Social Rights decided in a landmark case (No. 148/2017) brought by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) with support from the Prague-based Forum for Human Rights.
The ICJ and Forum lodged a complaint challenging the failure of the Czech Republic to provide for legal assistance to children under the age of 15 (the age of criminal responsibility in the Czech Republic) in the pre-trial stage of proceedings and failure to provide alternatives to formal judicial proceedings for them.
The European Committee of Social Rights, which is responsible for oversight of the European Social Charter of 1961, found the Czech Republic was violating the rights of children under 15, who face proceedings in the child justice system but are below the age of criminal responsibility. The Committee found that the failure to provide these due process safeguards violated the rights of the children to social protection under Article 17 of the 1961 Charter. Human rights protected under the European Social Charter are legally binding on States party to it.
“The Committee’s decision is ground-breaking in many ways, yet two implications are revolutionary. First, it clearly emphasises the inter-dependence between fair-trail rights and child’s well-being. In modern human rights law, there is no such a thing as a clear-cut division between civil and political rights and social rights. But most importantly, the decision undermines paternalistic attitudes towards young children who enter the juvenile justice system and makes clear that all children – regardless their age – must be ensured adequate procedural protection in the course of the whole proceedings, based on the restorative justice principles,” said Maroš Matiaško, senior legal consultant of Forum.
The decision of the European Committee on Social Rights should lead to fundamental changes in the Czech child justice system, Forum for Human Rights and the International Commission of Jurists said today.
“We brought this case to ensure that children below the age of criminal responsibility do not have lower standards of protection of their rights compared to the older children in the child justice system,” said Karolína Babická, ICJ Legal Adviser. “We expect the Czech Republic to swiftly implement the decision of the Committee and ensure that all children regardless their age have access to procedural rights and alternative procedures like settlements and conditional termination or withdrawal of prosecution.”
The legal findings come following a collective complaint submitted to the European Committee on Social Rights by Prague-based Forum for Human Rights and the International Commission of Jurists in 2017.
The Committee’s decision is built on two legal grounds, (I) mandatory legal representation for all children in conflict with the law regardless of age already in the pre-trial stage and (II) their access to alternatives in line with restorative justice principles.
On the first ground, the Committee found that the State must ensure mandatory legal assistance to children below the age of criminal responsibility already in the pre-stage of the proceedings. The reasoning is built on four grounds:
–Children below the age of criminal responsibility are not always able to understand and follow pre-trial proceedings due to their relative immaturity. It cannot therefore be assumed that they are able to defend themselves in this context.
–Children below the age of criminal responsibility should be assisted by a lawyer in order to understand their rights and the procedure applied to them, so as to prepare their defence. The failure to ensure legal assistance for children below the age of criminal responsibility in the pre-trial stage of proceedings is likely to impact negatively on the course of the proceedings, thereby increasing the likelihood of their being subjected to measures such as deprivation of liberty.
–Legal assistance is necessary in order for children to avoid self-incrimination and fundamental to ensure that a child is not compelled to give testimony or to confess or acknowledge guilt.
–The assistance of a lawyer is also necessary in situations where parents/legal guardians have interests that may conflict with those of the child and where it is in the child’s best interest to exclude the parents/legal guardians from being involved in the proceedings. Therefore, the Committee concluded that mandated separate legal representation for children is crucial at the pre-trial stage of proceedings.
In relation to the second legal ground, the Committee emphasised that diversion (alternatives to proceedings, such as settlement or conditional termination or withdrawal of criminal proceedings) from judicial proceedings should be the preferred manner of dealing with children in the majority of cases and diversion options should be available from as early as possible after contact with the system, before a trial commences, and throughout the proceedings. The principle applies to an even greater degree to a situation in which children below that age can still be engaged in the child justice system.
It may be left to the discretion of States Parties to decide on the exact nature and content of diversion measures, and to take the necessary legislative and other measures for their implementation, though there are relevant standards that should be taken into account, especially those developer by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Collective complaints alleging violations of obligations under the European Social Charter, may be brought against States which have ratified the 1995 Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter. On the basis of the European Committee on Social Rights’ decision on a collective complaint, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers may recommend that the State take specific measures to implement the decision.
Read the full decision here.
See more information about the case here.
Watch our talk on the case and its importance:
Karolína Babická, Legal adviser Europe and Central Asia Programme; karolina.babicka(a)icj.orgNewsPress releases