Free legal aid for witnesses

‘Legal aid’ refers to legal assistance provided by a lawyer to a person free of charge to ensure the person can effectively exercise his or her right to access to justice. ‘Witnesses’, in this context, are persons asked to testify in court in criminal matters about their knowledge regarding the specific matters courts are adjudicating.

Several EU directives provide for children’s right to legal assistance under certain circumstances – specifically, for child suspects/offenders and child victims in criminal proceedings. Although EU legislation does not address legal assistance for child witnesses, some Member States do provide for legal aid for them, as well. Setting the conditions and procedural rules for a child to be entitled to legal aid (such as income requirements) lies within the powers of Member States.

For information on free legal aid for child suspects/offenders as well as child victims, see our interactive data explorer.

View full dataset in data explorer.

Key aspects

  • Child suspects and offenders, as well as child victims of crime, plaintiffs and asylum seekers can access free legal aid in all EU Member States. By contrast, child witnesses can do so in fewer than half of Member States.
  • Free legal aid for child witnesses is provided without any age requirements in Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Finland, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain.
  • No legal aid is provided for child witnesses in Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
  • In Austria, however, free legal aid is provided without any age requirements for child witnesses who are relatives of the victim. In Germany, free legal aid for witnesses is provided if it is obvious that they are unable to provide testimony without such assistance and that their interests are worthy of protection and cannot otherwise be taken into account.
  • In Hungary, free legal aid without age requirements, though depending on income, will be provided to child witnesses from 1 July 2018 onwards.
  • Free legal aid is not conditioned on income in Austria (if applicable), Belgium, Bulgaria and the Netherlands.
  • Only two EU Member States (Belgium and Bulgaria) provide free legal aid to children without income requirements, and regardless of their role in a case/the type of case (witness, plaintiff, asylum seeker, in immigration procedures, suspect/offender or victim).

Legal background

Legal aid for “everyone” is enshrined in both the Charter (Article 47) and the ECHR (Article 6). In the context of these instruments, legal aid is set out to help persons in judicial proceedings who do not have sufficient resources to pay for assistance and representation by a lawyer.

Children’s right to legal aid is explicitly laid down in Article 18 of the Directive on special safeguards for children. It obliges Member States to ensure that national law guarantees the effective exercise of child suspects’/offenders’ right to be assisted by a lawyer in criminal proceedings. Member States cannot set age limits for such assistance below 18 years.

The right to legal aid is also provided for in Article 13 of the Victims’ Rights Directive regarding all victims, without distinguishing on the ground of age. Article 15 (2) of the Anti-Trafficking Directive and Article 20 (2) of the Directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography refer to legal representation of, and legal counselling for, child victims of trafficking in human beings or victims of sexual abuse. Specific provisions on legal aid for asylum seekers are also enshrined in Articles 20 and 21 of the Asylum Procedures Directive.

In all cases, however, setting other conditions or procedural rules for children to be entitled to legal aid, such as income requirements, lies within the powers of EU Member States.