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.

Refugee crisis tests Europe on human rights – the Round-up

Photo Credit: The Financial Times

In the news

Stemming migration flows from Turkey has been set as “a priority” at the 7 March emergency summit of EU and Turkish leaders in Brussels. EU officials are seeking to persuade Turkey to enforce the ‘action plan’ signed in November, under which Ankara agreed to curb the number of refugees crossing into Greece in return for three billion euros in aid and the speeding up of its EU membership bid.

However, human rights groups have been critical of the EU focus on ensuring refugees remain in Turkey. Amnesty International warned ahead of the meeting that is was “unacceptable” to expect that responsibility should be carried by a country already hosting three million refugees.

“Using Turkey as a ‘safe third country’ is absurd. Many refugees still live in terrible conditions, some have been deported back to Syria and security forces have even shot at Syrians trying to cross the border,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia. Continue reading

Visa scheme exposes workers to abuse -the Round-up

In the news

Domestic worker visas are leaving women vulnerable to conditions of abuse that amount to modern slavery, according to an independent review commissioned by the Home Office.

The current system ties overseas domestic workers to the foreign employer who brought them into the UK. Approximately 17,000 visas were issued under the scheme last year, with the large majority of applications coming from the Gulf States.

Workers have no legal right to change their employer, and are liable to deportation if they escape their situation. Campaigners argue that such restrictions expose women to the risk of serious ill treatment, with domestic workers being subjected to physical and sexual violence, deprivation of food and non-payment of wages.

The review of the scheme reinforces these concerns, finding “no evidence that a tie to a single employer does anything other than increase the risk of abuse and therefore increases actual abuse.” It recommends that workers be permitted to change employers and remain in the UK for up to two and a half years.

The Government has stated that it is “carefully considering the report’s recommendations” and would announce its response “in due course.”

In other news:

BBC: An independent investigation into concerns about Yarl’s Wood immigration centre has found no evidence of a “hidden or significant problem of serious misconduct” by staff at the facility. However, the report raised concerns that staffing levels had to some extent “undermined and compromised” the care of residents.

The Guardian: The Upper Tribunal has ordered the Secretary of State for the Home Department to admit to the UK four asylum seekers, currently residing in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais. The Tribunal ruled that the three unaccompanied minors and the dependent adult brother of one of them should be allowed to live with their relatives already in Britain while their asylum claims are examined.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said that there is now “an industry trying to profit from spurious claims” against UK military personnel which he plans to “stamp out”. However, lawyers have noted that the government has agreed to pay compensation in over 300 cases of abuse, and have urged Mr Cameron not to challenge the principle that no-one is above the law. The BBC reports here.

In a letter written to the Guardian, UK lawyers have sought to draw attention to the plight of human rights defenders in Honduras. Between 2010 and March 2015, the national commissioner of human rights recorded the targeted killings of 91 lawyers. The statement calls for greater protection by the Honduran state for those whose lives are at risk.

In the courts

Ivanovski v The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

This case concerned lustration proceedings brought against the former president of the Constitutional Court of Macedonia, which resulted in his dismissal from office.

The Court found that the proceedings, taken as a whole, had not satisfied the requirements of a fair trial. The Court attached particular importance to the open letter, published by the Prime Minister while lustration proceedings were still pending, which denounced the applicant as a collaborator of the secret police of the former regime. In view of the content and manner in which it was made, the statement was held to be incompatible with the notion of an “independent and impartial tribunal”. The Court therefore found a violation of Article 6 ECHR (the right to a fair trial).

UK HRB blog posts

Court of Session: Murderer’s prison conditions fair – Thomas Raine

UK Government tells High Court: Same-sex couples may be shut out of Article 14 – Professor Robert Wintemute

Stop Powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 incompatible with Article 10 – David Scott

Events

UCL will be hosting a lecture by Professor George Letsas – The Moral Dimension of Proportionality. The event will take place at 18.00 on the 17 March 2016. More information can be found here.

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.

The Round-up: Human Rights Act – the long struggle ahead

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch is vocal in his support for the HRA

This week’s Round-up is brought to you by Hannah Lynes

In the news

Prime Minister David Cameron has postponed the introduction of a British Bill of Rights, the Queen’s Speech containing only proposals for consultation. Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti has welcomed the development:

“It is heartening that a Conservative Government committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act has at least paused for thought in its first Queen’s speech. There is a long struggle ahead but time is the friend of freedom.”

Debate surrounding the proposed Bill of Rights continues in full force. Proponents of the HRA draw attention to perceived misconceptions advanced by the opposing side. Lord Leveson points out that UK courts are not ‘bound’ by the decisions of Strasbourg (“the legislation only requires us to take them into account”), whilst Colin Yeo for the Free Movement blog questions the accuracy of claims that the HRA prevents us from deporting serious foreign criminals. Dr Ed Bates argues in the Constitutional Law blog that the domestic judiciary is more supportive of the ECHR than certain politicians would have us believe. Useful coverage of the views expressed by senior judges is provided here.

Other news

Housing: Leading housing charities last month issued a report claiming that the present ‘crisis’ in housing has put the UK in breach of its UN obligations to provide adequate homes. Housing campaigners fear government proposals set to reduce housing benefit for 18-21 year olds will serve to exacerbate the problem. The measures could “spell disaster for thousands of young people who…could be facing homelessness and the terrifying prospect of roughing it on the streets”, warns Chief Executive of Crisis, Jon Sparkes.

Surveillance: Prominent legal academics have signed a letter calling on the Government to ensure that any changes in surveillance law “are fully and transparently vetted by parliament, and open to consultation from the public and all relevant stakeholders”. The Guardian reports here.

Police: Hampshire Constabulary has admitted a failure to properly investigate the complaint of a victim of rape, who had been accused of lying by the force. An out-of-court settlement was reached with the young woman following commencement of proceedings under the Human Rights Act.

Discrimination: A woman turned down for a job because she observed Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, was successful in her claim for indirect discrimination. The Telegraph reports on the decision.

Gender: An interview with barrister Roy Brown in Halsbury’s Law Exchange examines the significance of recent High Court decisions in JK and Carpenter for transgender rights in the UK.

In the courts

This case concerned the question of legal representation in complex family proceedings. The Court of Appeal held that whilst it may be inappropriate for an unrepresented litigant to conduct cross-examination of his alleged victim, a judge is not entitled to order the Courts Service (HMCTS) to pay for a legally trained advocate to do so on the litigant’s behalf. A court is not permitted to circumvent the detailed provisions for legal aid eligibility set out in LASPO. Further, the result does not amount to a breach of Article 6 ECHR (the right to a fair trial), since the court has available to it other alternatives. These include the possibility of the judge himself conducting the questioning.

1COR’s David Hart QC analyses the decision here.

UK HRB posts

Events

1COR/JUSTICE will be holding a major seminar on 4 June: Public Law in an Age of Austerity. To register please email lisa.pavlovsky@1cor.com.

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

Fair family hearings – according to the Court of Appeal

P-154a3cb5-e8aa-4516-9a6b-c5204c8a4e34Re K and H  [2015] EWCA Civ 543, Court of Appeal, 22 May 2015 – read judgment 

Philippa Whipple QC and Matthew Donmall of  1 COR appeared for the Lord Chancellor in this case.  They have played no part in the writing of this post.

Lord Dyson for the Court of Appeal has recently reversed the decision of HHJ Bellamy (see my post here) who had ordered legal aid to help an unrepresented father in family proceedings. The conundrum was that the father wanted contact with his children aged 5 and 4, but a 17-year old step-daughter, Y, told her teacher that the father sexually abused her – which the father denied.

That issue had to be decided first – and understandably the father felt unable to cross-examine Y himself. Hence the judge’s order that the Courts Service (HMCTS) should pay for legal representation for the father limited to that cross-examination of Y.

Continue reading

The Round-up: A British Bill of Rights on the Horizon?

Photo Credit: The Telegraph

In the news

‘The Conservative Party has won a majority and can implement its manifesto. The Human Rights Act will be scrapped,’ writes Colin Yeo for the Free Movement blog. Such an outcome might not be a foregone conclusion, but Professor Mark Elliott is clear that ‘repeal of the HRA, the adoption of a British Bill of Rights and perhaps even withdrawal from the ECHR are now less unthinkable’.

Questions surrounding the content of the proposed Bill of Rights have therefore assumed increased urgency. A press release issued in October 2014 spoke of limiting the rights of illegal immigrants, travellers, victims of British military abuse and foreigners who commit crimes in the UK. Yet as UKHRB founder Adam Wagner notes, ‘only foreign criminals were mentioned in the manifesto, so it is all to play for.’

The HRA has failed to secure resilience in domestic politics. Benedict Douglas for the UK Constitutional Law blog attributes this failure to an absence in the Act of a ‘justification for rights possession in dignity or any other foundational human characteristic’. Mark Elliott points to the manner of its introduction: little effort was made ‘to engage the general public in what was perceived to be a political and legal elite’s pet project’.

Current discussions could thus present an opportunity, argues Adam Wagner for RightsInfo. A ‘Bill of Rights, done properly with real public involvement might help convince people that human rights are for all of us.’

For those looking to read more about human rights reform:

The Human Rights Act and a Question of Legitimacy – Barrister Austen Morgan considers the advantages of a British Bill of Rights for The Justice Gap.

What does a Conservative Government Mean for the Future of Human Rights in the UK? – Professor Mark Elliot puts together a useful list of recent posts he has written on Conservative plans for reform.

Other news:

  • Michael Gove has been appointed Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor in the post-election Cabinet. The Telegraph reports here.
  • BBC: Two Syrian asylum seekers imprisoned for failing to provide passports have been successful in appealing their convictions.
  • The High Court has ruled that a child should be brought up by her genetic father and his male partner, despite objections from the surrogate mother. The Guardian reports.
  • The Justice Gap: The Uk Supreme Court has launched an on-demand video catch-up.
  • Legal Voice: More than 8,000 lawyers are set to join the London Legal Walk to raise funds for the legal not-for-profit sector
  • Mark Freedland and Jeremias Prassl express concerns over the impact and regulation of ‘zero-hours contracts’ for the Oxford Human Rights Hub.

In the courts

The case concerned the imposition of administrative fines on individuals who had been acquitted by the criminal courts of the same offence. The ECtHR found a violation of the right to a presumption of innocence (contra. Article 6 ECHR) and also the right not to be tried or punished twice (Article 4 of Protocol No.7).

Events

‘In Conversation with Sir Stephen Sedley’ – As part of LSE’s Legal Biography Project, Sir Ross Cranston will interview Sir Stephen Sedley on his life and career in the law. The event will be held on 19 May in the Wolfson Theatre, New Academic Building. More information can be found here.

UK HRB posts

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