European Court of Human Rights
14 January 2003

Facts

The applicant, Mr. Langerblom, was a Finnish national who was accused of several offences in Sweden where he lived, including aggravated drunken-driving and assault. Lawyer H., who didn’t speak Finnish, was appointed as public defence counsel for Mr. Langerblom. Several hearings took place and in some of them Mr. Langerblom requested that H. be replaced by counsel S., as he was able to communicate in Finnish. Mr. Langerblom’s request was refused as the court considered that sufficient reasons for counsel to be replaced had not been presented.

Complaint

The applicant complained that he had not been allowed to be defended by counsel with whom he could have spoken Finnish in violation of his right to fair trial.

Court's ruling

The Court reiterated that the right for an accused who cannot understand or speak the language used in court to have the free assistance of an interpreter extends to all those documents or statements in the criminal proceedings which it is necessary for the accused to understand or to have rendered into the court’s language in order to have the benefit of a fair trial. The interpretation assistance provided should be such as to enable the accused to have knowledge of the case against him and to defend himself, notably by being able to put before the court his version of the events. As Mr. Langerblom in the present case admitted that he actually speaks Swedish a little, the Court could not find that he was so handicapped that he could not at all communicate with H. or understand him. It further observed that interpretation between Finnish and Swedish was arranged in all the hearings and he could submit documents to the court in Finnish. Consequently, the Court ruled that Mr. Langerblom was able to participate effectively in his trial and that the criminal proceedings, taken as a whole, could not be regarded as unfair.

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