Whose fair trial prevails?

shutterstock_152336216-505x337Da Costa and another v. Sargaco [2016] EWCA Civ 764   14 July 2016 read judgment

Two people say they owned motorbikes which they kept outside their house – until, it is said, the bikes were mown down by the defendant’s car, a collision which their witness claimed to have seen. The car’s insurers said that the claim was fraudulent and it was all a conspiracy. The judge agreed it was a fraud, whereas the Court of Appeal disagreed – but still disallowed the claim because, the CA said, the owners had not proved their case.

But the point of general interest arose because the judge decided that each claimant should give evidence in the absence of the other. And the CA said this was wrong. As I shall explain, I disagree. But let’s see where the Article 6 ECHR battle lines lie so you can come to your own view.

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Strasbourg Court rules on “excessive” length of Scottish criminal proceedings

Photo credit: The Guardian

O’Neill and Lauchlan v. United Kingdom, nos. 41516/10 and 75702/13, 28 June 2016 – read judgment.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that criminal proceedings concerning two Scottish individuals ran beyond the “reasonable” period of time permitted under Article 6, ECHR. Despite considering that the individual stages of the proceedings were all reasonable in length, the cumulative time was excessive and in violation of Article 6(1).

Background

In August 1998, the applicants were sentenced to periods of imprisonment of eight and six years following convictions for various sex offences. During their incarceration, the police wished to question the applicants about the disappearance, and suspected murder, of their ex-housemate (AM) after she had been reported missing six months earlier. On 17 September 1998 the applicants were detained by police and interviewed separately for over five hours. During these interviews they were directly accused of the murder of AM but, subsequently, neither applicant was arrested or formally charged.

Following release from prison, and subsequent re-arrest and recall to prison due to the apparent abduction of a fourteen year old boy, the applicants were again convicted of various sex offences and sentenced to a further three years in prison. During this period of incarceration the applicants were also placed on petition in relation to the murder of AM in early April 2005. Formal charges were brought on 5 April 2005 whilst the police continued with their investigations. However, in late 2005, Crown Counsel raised concerns about the sufficiency of evidence. Accordingly, a decision to take “no proceedings meantime” was made in December 2005 and subjected to continuous review as investigations continued. Continue reading

Upholding fundamental rights or ensuring accurate verdicts? The ECtHR and the use of unchallengeable witness evidence.

Photo credit: The Guardian

Seton v. the United Kingdom, Application no. 55287/10, 31 March 2016 – read judgment.

The European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) has held that the use of telephone recordings as evidence in a criminal trial, despite the inability of the accused to challenge the caller, did not violate his rights under Article 6, ECHR. This judgment follows a number of Grand Chamber judgments on similar issues that have altered the ECtHR’s stance on the subject of absent witness evidence.

Background

The applicant, Mr Seton, was on trial for murder. Prior to the trial, he submitted a defence statement stating that he believed that the murder had been carried out by Mr Pearman. The applicant alleged that he had previously been involved in a drug deal with Mr Pearman and the victim.

Mr Pearman, who was at the time imprisoned for drug dealing, was interviewed by the police but he refused to cooperate and answered “no comment” to all questions. Following these interviews, Mr Pearman phoned his wife and son from the prison and stated that he had never heard of the applicant and had no knowledge of the murder. These calls were recorded – a standard practice that Mr Pearman would have been aware of.

During the applicant’s trial for murder, it was accepted that the primary issue to be determined by the jury was whether the applicant or Mr Pearman had committed the murder. Mr Pearman had refused to attend the trial or make a formal witness statement. Accordingly, the prosecution sought to rely upon these recordings to disprove the applicant’s version of events. The trial judge, in deciding whether the recordings could be admitted as evidence, referred to s.114, Criminal Justice Act 2003 (“CJA 2003″). After considering the relevant considerations – such as the probative value of the evidence, whether it was self-serving, the reliability of the recording, and the prejudice that the applicant would face if it were to be admitted – the judge decided that the recordings could be relied upon during the trial. In summing up, the trial judge outlined the limitations of the telephone recordings and stated that it was up to the jury, in light of these limitations, to decide the relevant weight to be attached to the recordings. The applicant was subsequently convicted by the jury and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The applicant unsuccessfully appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeal (see, Seton v. R., [2010] EWCA Crim 450). The Court of Appeal considered that compelling Mr Pearman to attend the trial, which was an option, would have “been a fruitless exercise”. Mr Pearman could have invoked the protection against self-incrimination and had consistently refused to cooperate so the “prospect of any sensible evidence being given by him was, on a realistic view, nil” (paragraph 22 of Court of Appeal judgment). The Court of Appeal would only interfere with the trial judge’s decision if the decision was “marred by legal error, or by a failure to take relevant matters into account or it is such that the judge could not sensibly have made”. The Court of Appeal held that the relevant consideration under s.114(2), CJA 2003 had been covered by the trial judge and there were no other grounds to overturn the conviction.

Further, the Court of Appeal commented on the safety of the conviction. Due to the “overwhelming” evidence against the applicant, including eye-witness accounts, telephone call records between the applicant and the victim and cell site location evidence placing the applicant in the vicinity of the murder, the conviction was deemed to be safe.

The Strasbourg Court

The applicant applied to the European Court of Human Rights and alleged that his right to a fair trial within Article 6(1) and 6(3)(d) had been violated. Article 6(1) includes the right to a fair hearing when facing criminal charges whilst Article 6(3)(d) ensures that the individual has the right:

“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 default position is that witness evidence should be provided during the trial and the accused should have the opportunity to challenge this evidence during this trial. However, the use of witness evidence when the witness does not attend the trial does not automatically result in a violation of Article 6(1) and 6(3)(d). The Grand Chamber has previously set out specific guidance in assessing whether the use of such evidence complies with Article 6. In Al-Khawaja and Tahery v. the United Kingdom (GC), Application nos. 26766/05 and 22228/06, 15 December 2011 (see paragraphs 118-151), the Grand Chamber outlined a general three-part process:

  1. Consider whether good reasons exist for the absence of the witness.

  2. Consider whether the evidence was the “sole or decisive” decisive evidence against the accused.

  3. Assess the existence of sufficient counterbalancing factors and procedural safeguards which allow the reliability of the evidence to be fairly and properly tested.

This process was clarified in Schatschaschwili v. Germany (GC), Application no. 9154/10, 15 December 2015. The Grand Chamber stated that the lack of good reasons for lack of attendance was not sufficient to result in a violation of Article 6, but it was a strong factor to be considered when assessing the overall fairness of the proceedings (paragraph 113). Additionally, the necessary extent of counterbalancing factors depends upon the weight of the evidence provided by the absent witness in the overall context of the proceedings (paragraph 116).

  1. Were there good reasons for the non-attendance of Mr Pearman? (paragraphs 61-62)

The ECtHR has previously adopted a robust approach to assessing whether “good reasons” existed for the absence of the witness at the trial. Previously, even in situations where the witness was located in another country (Gabrielyan v. Armenia, Application no. 8088/05, 10 April 2012), or could not be located at all (Lučić v. Croatia, Application no. 5699/11, 27 February 2014), the ECtHR have held that the authorities have failed to satisfy their duty to secure attendance of the witness. In light of this, the ECtHR unsurprisingly concluded that no good reasons existed for Mr Pearman being absent from the trial. The trial court could have compelled Mr Pearman to attend the trial and whilst they could not compel him to give evidence, due to his right to silence, the jury would have at least been able to assess his demeanour when facing cross-examination.

  1. Was the evidence of Mr Pearman the “sole or decisive” evidence? (Paragraphs 63-64)

The ECtHR considered that the recorded telephone calls could not be considered the “sole or decisive” evidence in the criminal trial. The Court of Appeal, in commenting on the safeness of the conviction, had listed the other “overwhelming” evidence against the applicant. However, the evidence had been described as “important” by the trial judge. Accordingly, following the Grand Chamber decision in Schatschaschwili, it was necessary to consider whether sufficient counterbalancing factors existed during the trial.

  1. Did sufficient counterbalancing factors exist? (Paragraphs 65-68)

In the present case, the ECtHR highlighted the detailed legislative scheme intended to ensure that evidence from the absent witness could only be relied upon in limited circumstances. The need to assess the significance of the evidence, its reliability, and the prejudice that the applicant would face as a result of being unable to challenge the witness was an important procedural safeguard intended to uphold respect for the applicant’s rights. Additionally, the instruction of the judge as to the limitations of the evidence was another important counterbalancing factor.

As clarified by the Grand Chamber in Schatschaschwili, the assessment of counterbalancing factors is a relative one – fewer factors will be required if the evidence provided by the absent witness is not especially important. In light of the existence of separate “overwhelming” evidence against the accused, the counterbalancing factors in the present case were considered sufficient.

In conclusion, the ECtHR decided that the criminal proceedings as a whole had been fair. Having following the procedure outlined in Al-Khawaja, the ECtHR concluded that there had been no violation of Article 6.

Comment

This decision of the ECtHR is the consequence of previous Grand Chamber decisions tending to dilute the procedural protections contained within Article 6(3). The right to examine witnesses has slowly been weakened in favour of a more holistic approach that focusses upon the overall fairness of the proceedings instead of potential individual deficiencies.

When considering the three part test in Al-Khawaja, the first step – whether good reasons existed for the non-attendance of the witness – was previously considered determinative. If no good reasons existed, then Article 6 had been violated. Such a stance has even been adopted by the ECtHR following the judgment in Al-Khawaja and only months before the decision in Schatschaschwili (see Karpyuk and Others v. Ukraine, Application nos. 30582/04 and 32152/04, 6 October 2015, paragraph 123). Additionally, if such good reasons did exist but the evidence was the “sole or decisive” evidence in the case, then Article 6 had also been violated (Saïdi v. France, Application no. 14647/89, 20 September 1993, paragraph 44). Now, the position is that these considerations are merely factors that can be balanced away.

But the balancing process places an undue weight upon the existence of other incriminating evidence against the accused. The position appears to be that it is more acceptable to deny the accused the right to cross-examine a witness if the prosecution’s case against him/her is strong. This move towards focussing on the accuracy of the verdict, as opposed to upholding the rights of individuals, is a potentially worrying development. Indeed, the contemporary Strasbourg position appears, in effect, similar to  the Court of Appeal’s consideration of the safety of the conviction.

It could be argued that the ECtHR may be surrendering its role as an upholder of fundamental human rights and moving towards that of an international criminal appeal court.

Does Art 5 entail a right to legal representation when facing prison for contempt of court?

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Hammerton v. the United Kingdom, Application no. 6287/10 – read judgment.

The European Court of Human Rights has held that the detention of an individual following his breach of a civil contact order, where he had no legal representation, did not violate his rights under Article 5, ECHR (Right to Liberty and Security of Person). However, the decision not to provide compensation to the individual following a failure to provide him with a lawyer during domestic proceedings resulted in a violation of Article 6 (Right to a Fair Trial).  Continue reading

Saudi execution of political prisoners sparks protest – the Round-up

The first round=up of 2016 is brought to you by Hannah Lynes.

In the news

The interior ministry of Saudi Arabia has confirmed this week that it has executed 47 people in a single day. Included among those put to death was prominent Shia  cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who had been a vocal supporter of the 2011 anti-government protests in the country’s Eastern Province.

The execution of Sheikh Nimr has provoked demonstrations across Iran, Bahrain, Iraq and Shia-majority areas in Saudi Arabia. A spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry has said that the Saudi Government would pay “a heavy price” for its actions, while the US state department has expressed concern that the execution “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”

International human rights organisation Reprieve has noted with alarm that “the Saudi Government is continuing to target those who have called for domestic reform in the kingdom”, with at least four of those executed having been convicted of offences related to political protest. The organisation said it had “real concerns” that protestors Ali al-Nimr (Sheikh Nimr’s nephew), Dawoud al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher, sentenced to death as children, would be “next in line”.

A statement released by the UK foreign office has emphasised that “the UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country.” But despite the much-criticised record of Saudi Arabia on human rights, it recently emerged that Britain had entered into a vote-trading deal with the kingdom to ensure the election of both states to the UN human rights council.

The UK Government has also come under pressure to discontinue its supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia, in circumstances where its bombing campaign in Yemen has led to thousands of civilian deaths. In a legal opinion commissioned by Amnesty International, lawyers from Matrix Chambers concluded that authorisation of the transfer of weapons to the state would “constitute a breach by the UK of its obligations under domestic, European and international law.”

In other news:

The Guardian: A gay British man has avoided extradition to Dubai on charges of theft. A judge at Westminster magistrates court ruled that the UAE had failed to provide adequate assurances that the trial and treatment of Mr Halliday, given his circumstances, would meet the required human rights standards.

The Telegraph: Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC has expressed concern that the Government is undermining freedom of information laws, and is “obsessively secretive”about things that should be in the public domain. The latest  releases by the National Archives included only 14 files for the years 1987 and 1988, whereas last year more than 500 files were released.

The Law Society and the Bar Council have issued a joint call for legally privileged communications data to be protected by express provisions in the investigatory powers bill. Current proposals have been criticised as threatening a common law right traceable back to the 16th Century. The Law Society Gazette reports.

The Independent: Senior civil servant Sir Jeremy Heywood is understood to be opposed to the implementation of any major reforms to the Freedom of Information Act. A Government commission is considering proposals to introduce charges for information requests and stricter rules for the obtaining of information.

In the Courts:

This case concerned an allegation of inconsistent case-law amounting to a breach of Article 6 ECHR (the right to a fair trial). The applicants complained about the rejection of their civil claims against Serbia by domestic courts, and the simultaneous acceptance by the same courts of other claims which were based on similar facts and concerned identical legal issues.

The Court reiterated the principle that an assessment of whether conflicting decisions of different domestic courts were in breach of Article 6 consisted in establishing whether “profound and long-standing differences” existed in the relevant case-law. The Serbian judiciary had, generally speaking, harmonised their case-law on the matter, and the rejection of the applicants’ cases was exceptional. The possibility of conflicting court decisions was an inherent trait of any judicial system based on a network of trial and appeal courts with authority over a certain area. That in itself, however, could not be considered to be in breach of the Convention. The Court therefore found no violation of Article 6.

Events

If you would like your event to be mentioned on the Blog, please email Jim Duffy at jim.duffy@1cor.com

 

Supreme Court: Failure to disclose evidence did not breach Art 6

Macklin v Her Majesty’s Advocate [2015] 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).

The Facts

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.

Bank Mellat and disclosure in closed material proceedings

brown-blanket-ray-of-lightBank Mellat v HM Treasury [2015] EWCA Civ 105, 23 October 2015  read judgment

Bank Mellat is an Iranian bank, initially subjected to a 2009 order which prohibited anybody in the UK from dealing with it – until the Supreme Court quashed it:  here, and my posts here and here.  

The Treasury tried again, by orders made in 2011 and 2012 addressed at all Iranian banks, not just Bank Mellat. The EU has now taken over regulation of these banks.

In the current proceedings, the Bank seeks to set the 2011 and 2012 orders aside. These restrictions are, the Treasury says, addressed at the financing of Iran’s nuclear programme, in which all Iranian banks are complicit. Bank Mellat denies this, and the conundrum in the case is how to make sure that the challenge is fairly tried.  Collins J (my post here) thought that the Treasury had not revealed enough about its case, and, in substance, on appeal the CA agreed.

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