Round Up 20.01.20: The UK in the ECHR, Cypriot justice under the spotlight, deteriorating human rights in Russia and sentencing remarks on TV…
20 January 2020
Protestors demonstrate outside the Famagusta district court in Paralimni, Cyprus, at the trial of a 19-year old girl convicted of public mischief after withdrawing a rape allegation in contested circumstances. Credit: The Guardian.
A quick look at the “recent decisions” page of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute’s (BAILII) website did not, at first glance, give this author much cause for optimism in the preparation of this blog. However, a more careful reflection on the week’s events provided a plethora of material to consider, notwithstanding the absence of any recent decisions from the Supreme Court or civil Court of Appeal.
When the domestic courts go on leave, it falls to their European counterparts to pick up the slack and churn out judgments to help keep us occupied. It was with surprise however, that a hopeful scroll through the week’s European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decisions revealed not only the familiar names paying a visit to Strasbourg (ahem, Russia), but also that our own United Kingdom had put in an appearance at Europe’s legal naughty corner. Some further creative searching on BAILII revealed that the UK paid nine visits to the ECtHR last year, compared to Russia’s one-hundred and seventy-three.
In Yam v United Kingdom  ECHR 41, a former MI6 informant and Chinese dissident failed in his attempt to have the ECtHR rule that his 2009 murder trial had been prejudiced by virtue of parts of it being held in camera, rather than in public. The applicant had relied upon the provisions of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically 6(1) and 6(3)(d):
“1. In the determination of … any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing … [T]he press and public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interests of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society, where the interests of juveniles or the protection of the private life of the parties so require, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances where publicity would prejudice the interests of justice.
3. Everyone charged with a criminal offence has the following minimum rights:
(d) to examine or have examined witnesses against him and to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on his behalf under the same conditions as witnesses against him;”
The court held however that these provisions did not prohibit domestic courts from derogating from public hearings where special circumstances justified it. The measures adopted during his trial had met the requirement of necessity. Furthermore, the ECtHR considered itself poorly equipped to challenge national authorities’ judgement when assessing national security concerns. The court held that the trial judge had carefully balanced the need for openness against the national security interests at stake, and in so doing, had limited the private aspects of the trial to the minimum possible. Through such an analysis, he had satisfied himself that a fair trial was still possible. Consequently, there was no thus disadvantage to the applicant, who had suffered no breach of his Article 6 rights.
In other international developments, lawyers acting for a British 19-year-old in Cyprus filed an appeal against her suspended sentence for public mischief and fabricating an “imaginary crime”. The woman involved had initially made accusations of gang-rape against 12 Israeli youths before retracting her accusation in circumstances now disputed. Her defence have suggested that not only was she suffering from PTSD at the time her claims were withdrawn, but also that she was in fear for her life. The signed confession was in Greek rather than English and made after several hours of unrecorded questioning by detectives in the absence of a lawyer. Her legal team seek to have her conviction overturned.
Returning to purely domestic considerations, the week also saw the announcement that judicial sentencing remarks in high profile cases will in future be broadcast on television from Crown Courts. The move was lauded by broadcasters and the Lord Chief Justice as promoting transparency and as an aid to public understanding of the criminal justice system.
The move was not however uncontroversial. Concerns were raised by the Bar Council of England and Wales that the broadcast of sentencing remarks in the absence of fuller details of the trial could lead to a failure on behalf of viewers to appreciate why a particular sentence has been passed. They expressed anxiety that the audience will be deprived of relevant context, such as mitigation. Further fears included that increased disclosure of judges to the public eye could expose them to undue attack and criticism in circumstances where a given sentence proves unpopular. However regardless of the merits, the development was successful in affording current BBC radio 4 listeners one of the funnier moments so far of 2020, when Evan Davis introduced American lawyer Robert Shapiro to debate the topic with Lord Sumption, only to find that they had inadvertently invited an American political adviser with the same name to the PM show instead (listen here).
The week also saw:
- The Mail of Sunday file its defence at the High Court on Tuesday in response to a claim brought by the Duchess of Sussex for breach of copyright, invasion of privacy and misuse of personal data. The case concerns excerpts of correspondence between the Duchess and her father published by the newspaper.
- The ECHR deliver judgment in favour of nine Russians detained pending trial for as long as 7 years, some of whom remain incarcerated, in circumstances characterised by fragile reasoning of the courts and an absence of due process – DIGAY AND OTHERS v. RUSSIA  ECHR 54.
- The entire Russian government resign in a move thought likely to pave the way for amendments to the country’s constitution favourable to current leader Vladimir Putin. The proposed reforms would strengthen the role of the Prime Minister and weaken that of the President. Mr Putin is constitutionally barred from standing again for the presidency but could transition into one of the roles in which the proposed constitutional changes are likely to vest more power. The reforms would also restrict the applicability of international law in Russia to circumstances where it did not contradict the constitution or restrict people’s rights and freedoms, a measure framed as one to increase national sovereignty.
- The High Court refuse permission to appeal in a case brought by a soldier, who contracted Q-fever whilst serving in Afghanistan, against the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The claimant soldier had alleged failings on behalf of the MOD in not providing him with adequate chemoprophylaxis to protect him from the disease – Bass v Ministry of Defence  EWHC 36 (QB).
- A Jewish woman in London succeed in obtaining a religious divorce by launching a private prosecution under laws against controlling or coercive behaviour. The prosecution for this relatively new crime, known to listeners of the Archers, succeeded in pressuring the husband to grant a divorce which, according to Jewish law may be withheld by the man, resulting in the woman being unable to remarry. Such woman are known as ‘agunot’ (‘chained women’). But this woman’s chains have been broken through this innovative use of the criminal law.
Lastly, on the UK Human Rights Blog: