EU Rights Court Finds Limit in Right to Go Pro Se

The main building of the European Court of Human Rights. (Photo credit: CherryX/Wikipedia)

(CN) – A disbarred lawyer who was ordered to hire a lawyer in criminal proceedings rather than being allowed to represent himself did not suffer infringement of his right to a fair trial, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Wednesday.

A lawyer by training and an auditor by profession, Carlos Correia de Matos was disbarred 25 years ago by the Portuguese bar council because the group deemed being an auditor incompatible with being a lawyer.

Years later while nevertheless practicing law in a civil suit, Correia de Matos criticized decisions made by the judge in the case. As insulting a judge is a crime in Portugal, the judge in the case complained and the public prosecutor filed criminal charges against Correia de Matos.

The prosecutor also appointed a defense attorney for the man as required by Portuguese criminal code. Correia de Matos demanded to be allowed to represent himself and was refused – an order upheld on appeal because Portuguese law forbids self-representation in cases where prison time is possible.

In the end, Correia de Matos refused to attend any of the proceedings in the criminal insult case against him. A judge found him guilty of aggravated insult and ordered him to pay $1,550 in lieu of jail time, as well as court costs and $184 for his public defender.

After another round of appeals, Correia de Matos lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. He complained being barred from representing himself violated his rights to a fair trial and to defend oneself in person under the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a 9-8 decision issued Wednesday, the rights court denied Correia de Matos’ complaint. The majority noted Portugal’s law against self-representation in cases that could result in jail time has been thoroughly vetted by both the legislative and judiciary branches there and has been found to serve the best interests of both the public and the criminally accused.

The majority also rejected Correia de Matos’ argument that as a trained lawyer he would know how to handle his case, noting that he had been disbarred and had been providing legal assistance to third parties anyway – which got him into the mess in the first place.

Finally, the rights court found the proceedings against him were fair despite his arguments to the contrary, arguments made despite not attending a single day of trial.

Several dissenting justices blasted the majority’s opinion, with three saying Correia de Matos’ case was “an opportunity for the grand chamber to contribute to the harmonization of international human rights law” that the rights court allowed to slip away.

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