Supreme Court: Failure to disclose evidence did not breach Art 6
18 December 2015
Macklin v Her Majesty’s Advocate  UKSC 77, 16th December 2015 – read judgment
The Supreme Court has unanimously dismissed an appeal against a decision of Scotland’s High Court of Justiciary (available here) in which it refused to overturn a criminal conviction on the basis that the non-disclosure of evidence breached the appellant’s right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
On 26th September 2003, Paul Macklin was convicted of possessing a handgun in contravention of section 17 of the Firearms Act 1968 and of assaulting two police officers by repeatedly presenting the handgun at them. At trial, the key issue was the identification of the gunman, with both police officers identifying the appellant in the dock. Two witnesses testified that the man in the dock was not the gunman, however, their evidence was undermined for various reasons including discrepancies in police statements and unreliable alibis.
Several years later, following a change in practice regarding the disclosure of evidence, the Crown disclosed the fact that a fingerprint from another individual with a serious criminal record had been found in a car abandoned at the scene of the crime. The Crown also disclosed statements from six further individuals who had seen the incident.
The High Court’s Decision
Macklin appealed against his conviction on the grounds that the Crown had failed to disclose material evidence, and that by leading and relying on dock identifications without having disclosed that evidence and without an identification parade, the Lord Advocate had infringed his rights under Article 6 ECHR.
The Appeal Court of the High Court of Justiciary dismissed his appeal. The court held that the fingerprint evidence and three of the undisclosed statements neither materially weakened the Crown case nor materially strengthened the defence. Whilst the other three statements should have been disclosed, there was not a real possibility of a different verdict had there been disclosure. Finally, leading dock identifications from the two police officers without an identification parade did not infringe Article 6.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court first dealt with the issue of its jurisdiction. Under section 124(2) of the Criminal Procedure Scotland Act 1995, every interlocutor (decision) and sentence of the High Court of Justiciary is final, conclusive, and not subject to review by any court. However, under section 288ZB of the 1995 Act, as inserted by section 35 of the Scotland Act 2012, the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to hear an appeal concerning the question of whether a public authority has acted compatibly with the ECHR. As the question raised by the appellant was whether the conduct of the prosecution was compatible with Article 6 the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to hear the matter.
As the European Court of Human Rights explained in Edwards v United Kingdom the question of whether a failure of disclosure breached Article 6 had to be considered in light of the proceedings as a whole. Translating the Strasbourg approach into domestic law in McInnes v HM Advocate (available here), Lord Hope set out two stages to the analysis. First, should the material which had been withheld from the defence have been disclosed? The test here was whether the undisclosed evidence might have materially weakened the Crown case or materially strengthened the defence. Second, taking into account all of the circumstances, was there a real possibility that the jury would have arrived at a different verdict in the event of disclosure?
The appellant challenged the High Court’s conclusion that some of the undisclosed material did not have to be disclosed under Article 6 on the basis that under current Crown practice the evidence would be disclosed. The Supreme Court dismissed this argument. For Lord Reed the argument was a “non sequitur” and Lord Gill described it as “specious”. The fact that the evidence would now be disclosed did not mean that non-disclosure breached Article 6.
Regarding the evidence which should have been disclosed, the appellant argued that the High Court had failed to apply the second part of the test from McInnes. The Supreme Court also rejected this argument. As it was confined to compatibility issues, the Supreme Court could only ask whether the High Court had applied the correct test, not whether it had applied the test correctly. The Crown’s submission to the High Court was expressly founded on the McInnes test and, by reciting the words of the test, the court made clear that it had applied it. The appellant tried to argue that the High Court’s conclusions on the second part of the McInnes test were so manifestly wrong that it had not in reality applied that test. However, this was essentially an argument that the High Court had applied the test incorrectly and the Supreme Court was not prepared to entertain it. The High Court had applied the correct tests for the purposes of Article 6 and found that the appellant’s trial was fair.
In the end, the role of the Supreme Court was limited. As Lord Reed made clear, the court was not sitting as a criminal appeal court exercising a general power of review. The Article 6 issues had been authoritatively determined by the High Court of Justiciary when it dismissed Macklin’s appeal against his conviction. All the Supreme Court could do was ensure that in exercising its appellate function, the High Court had applied the appropriate Article 6 tests as set out in McInnes.
by Thomas Raine