#42: The right to a trial within a reasonable period

Article 6 of the ECHR gives a suspect the right to a public hearing before an independent and impartial court within a reasonable period of time. Our experience is however that (financial) criminal investigations take a very long time. The workload of the Financial Intelligence office is too high. Also the workload of the Courts prevents the prosecution of all criminal cases. The question is: what can a do suspect against such delays? Can a suspect enforce the right to a trial within a reasonable time?

What a reasonable period is depends on the circumstances of the case. It depends on i) the complexity of the case; ii) the influence of the suspect or his counsel on the proceedings and iii) the way in which the case was handled by the competent authorities. According to the jurisprudence of the Dutch Supreme Court, an exceedance of a reasonable period is usually compensated by a reduction in sentences. Exceeding the reasonable period does not lead to inadmissibility of the public prosecutor, not even in exceptional cases.

But what if no prosecution takes place and the public prosecutor does not bring the case to trial? In the Netherlands it is possible to submit a request to terminate the case on the basis of Article 36 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The question is however, whether the prosecution can be deprived of its right to prosecute due to a violation of the reasonable period on the basis of Article 36 of the Criminal Code. Courts seem to answer this question in various ways. However, such Court decisions cannot be appealed to the Supreme Court.

For this reason an advocate general of the Supreme Court, who provides independent advice to the Supreme Court, has submitted this legal question to the Supreme Court in a cassation procedure which is initiated in the interest of the law. One of the questions is whether an infringement on the right to a fair trial within a reasonable period can be a criterion in the application of Article 36 of the Dutch Criminal Code. Especially taking into account the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court which states that exceeding the reasonable period can never constitute a ground for declaring the prosecutor inadmissible in his prosecution.

The advocate general comes to the conclusion that sanctioning an unreasonable delay in the investigation and prosecution cannot lead to and end of the case, since this would be contrary to the aforementioned case law of the Supreme Court. However the advocate general provides another route to speed up the procedure. According to him the appropriate route to prevent an unnecessarily long investigation or the absence of a prosecution is the following:

At the request of the suspect, the examining magistrate can, on the basis of Article 180 (3) of the Criminal Code, commission a public prosecutor to end the investigation an prosecute the case if the investigation takes too long. However if the public prosecutor ignores this term the law does not provide for an explicit sanction. That is why, according to the advocate general, Article 36 DCC can serve as a safeguard. In that omission, the examining magistrate can find reason to submit the case to the court, who can then declare that the case has ended. In that case, that statement is not a sanction for exceeding the reasonable period as such, but for exceeding the set term by the examining magistrate. According to the advocate general, this is then compatible with the case law of the Supreme Court regarding the reasonable period.

In our opinion, this step-by-step plan is somewhat artificial. Why does the public prosecutor still have a last chance after an unreasonably long deadline? Is an infringement of the set term of the examining magistrate more serious than a violation of the human rights of the suspect on the basis of Article 6 ECHR? We believe that it is up to the prosecutor to consider and protect the fundamental rights of Article 6 ECHR. If a public prosecutor does not prosecute a case for an unreasonable period of time, apparently it is not that important. And can it still be possible to find truth even so many years afterwards? We believe that Article 36 CC should have an important function in protecting Article 6 ECHR in the event of an inactive or slow investigation. Maybe the Supreme Court in its decision provides the tools to protect the rights of a fair trial of a suspect.

If you have any questions about this subject or if are you confronted with a related issue please feel free to contact us via boezelman@hertoghsadvocaten.nl and boer@hertoghsadvocaten.nl.