European Court of Human Rights - case of Steel and Morris v. the UK (2005) (excerpts)

European Court of Human Rights - case of Steel and Morris v. the UK (2005) (excerpts)

59.  The Court recalls that the Convention is intended to guarantee practical and effective rights. This is particularly so of the right of access to court in view of the prominent place held in a democratic society by the right to a fair trial (see the Airey v. Ireland judgment of 9 October 1979, Series A no. 32, § 24). It is central to the concept of a fair trial, in civil as in criminal proceedings, that a litigant is not denied the opportunity to present his or her case effectively before the court (ibid.) and that he or she is able to enjoy equality of arms with the opposing side (see, among many other examples, De Haes and Gijsels v. Belgium, judgment of 24 February 1997, Reports 1997-I, § 53).

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62.  The right of access to a court is not, however, absolute and may be subject to restrictions, provided that these pursue a legitimate aim and are proportionate (see Ashingdane v. the United Kingdom, judgment of 28 May 1985, Series A no. 93, pp. 24-25, § 57). It may therefore be acceptable to impose conditions on the grant of legal aid based, inter alia, on the financial situation of the litigant or his or her prospects of success in the proceedings (see Munro, above). Moreover, it is not incumbent on the State to seek through the use of public funds to ensure total equality of arms between the assisted person and the opposing party, as long as each side is afforded a reasonable opportunity to present his or her case under conditions that do not place him or her at a substantial disadvantage vis-à-vis the adversary (see De Haes and Gijsels, cited above, § 53, and also McVicar, §§ 51 and 62).

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67.  Against this background, the Court must assess the extent to which the applicants were able to bring an effective defence despite the absence of legal aid. In the above-mentioned McVicar case (§§ 53 and 60), it placed weight on the facts that Mr McVicar was a well-educated and experienced journalist, and that he was represented during the pre-trial and appeal stages by a solicitor specialising in defamation law, from whom he could have sought advice on any aspects of the law or procedure of which he was unsure.