What Access To Justice Means

No. 18 of #50cases.

Human rights are sometimes attacked for being applicable to criminals and prisoners. But prisoners are humans too. They lose many of their rights, particularly to freedom, by being convicted of a crime. But how we treat them when imprisoned is a key test of our principles as a society.

This was illustrated in the case of Sidney Golder – a man sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for committing a violent robbery. In October 1969, a riot broke out in the prison where Golder was held. One of the injured prison officers wrongly accused Golder of attacking him during the riot. Golder argued that he was not involved. He wrote letters to his MP about the incident. He also sought legal advice from his solicitor, with a view to suing the officer for libel. However, the Home Secretary blocked Golder from sending the letters and stopped him from consulting with his lawyer.

The European Court of Human Rights said, in its first ever judgment against the UK, that the state violated Golder’s right to access the courts, as well as his right to respect for correspondence. It was not necessary in a democratic society for the Home Secretary to stop him from consulting with his solicitor. Golder should have been able to write to his solicitor as he was trying to prove his innocence from the prison’s accusations.

His case shows that the state has a duty to ensure that every person has a right to go to court, regardless of whether they are prisoners or not. In the words of the European court: “one can scarcely conceive of the rule of law without there being a possibility of having access to the courts.”


This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here