European Court of Human Rights
22 January 2017
Artificial intelligence … it’s no longer in the future. It’s with us now.
I posted a review of a book about artificial intelligence in autumn last year. The author’s argument was not that we might find ourselves, some time in the future, subservient to or even enslaved by cool-looking androids from Westworld. His thesis is more disturbing: it’s happening now, and it’s not robots. We are handing over our autonomy to a set of computer instructions called algorithms.
If you remember from my post on that book, I picked out a paragraph that should give pause to any parent urging their offspring to run the gamut of law-school, training contract, pupillage and the never never land of equity partnership or tenancy in today’s competitive legal industry. Yuval Noah Harari suggests that the everything lawyers do now – from the management of company mergers and acquisitions, to deciding on intentionality in negligence or criminal cases – can and will be performed a hundred times more efficiently by computers.
Now here is proof of concept. University College London has just announced the results of the project it gave to its AI researchers, working with a team from the universities of Sheffield and Pennsylvania. Its news website announces that a machine learning algorithm has just analysed, and predicted, “the outcomes of a major international court”:
The judicial decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) have been predicted to 79% accuracy using an artificial intelligence (AI) method.
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24 May 2016
Photo credit: RT
In the news
The absence of fixed time limits in the UK system of immigration detention does not breach Article 5 of the Convention (the right to liberty), according to a recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights in JN v United Kingdom.
The applicant was an Iranian national who was refused asylum in the UK and issued with a deportation order. He was detained in an immigration removal centre for more than four and a half years, following completion of a custodial sentence for indecent assault. The applicant complained that in the absence of fixed time limits, domestic law was unclear and did not produce foreseeable consequences for individuals.
This argument was rejected by the Court, which re-iterated that Article 5 does not lay down maximum time limits for detention pending deportation. The issue was said to be whether domestic law contained sufficient procedural safeguards against arbitrariness, and in this regard the UK did not fall short of Convention requirements. However, the Court did find that between January 2008 and September 2009 deportation of the applicant had not been pursued with “due diligence”, and his detention during this period was therefore in breach of his right to liberty.
The decision will come as a disappointment to campaigners, who point out that the UK is the only EU Member State which places no time limit on the detention of foreign nationals. According to the UNHCR, detention can have “a lasting, detrimental impact on the mental and physical health of asylum seekers”, and both a cross-party Parliamentary Inquiry and a recent report of the UN Human Rights Committee have called on the UK to adopt an upper limit.
It remains open to the Government to do so. However, in light of the judgment in JN, the introduction of a statutory time limit would now appear unlikely. A spokeswoman told the Guardian that the Home Office were pleased with the outcome of the case: “We maintain that our immigration detention system is firm but fair”.
In other news
The Queen’s Speech has declared that “proposals will be brought forward for a British Bill of Rights” – wording that is near identical to last year’s commitment to ‘bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights”. Speaking to the Huffington Post, Policy Director at Liberty, Bella Sankey remarks that if this “felt like groundhog day, it was because little progress has been made” towards the scrapping of the Human Rights Act. UKHRB founder Adam Wagner provides a useful list of reactions and coverage here.
A report from the European Commission points to evidence that “the migration crisis has been exploited by criminal networks involved in trafficking in human beings”, who target the most vulnerable. According to official figures, in 2013-2014 there were 15,846 registered victims of trafficking in the EU, although the true number is considered to be “substantially higher”. The BBC reports on the findings.
The Supreme Court has upheld an interim injunction in the ‘celebrity threesome’ case, until after the full trial for invasion of privacy. The Court of Appeal had been wrong to enhance the weight attached to freedom of expression (article 10 ECHR) as compared with the right to respect for privacy (article 8 ECHR) – neither article had preference over the other in the balancing exercise. David Hart QC provides an analysis of the decision for the UKHRB – a summary of the main points can be found on RightsInfo
In the courts
The applicants were Hungarian nationals and members of parliament, who had been issued with fines for engaging in protests that were disruptive of parliamentary proceedings. They complained that this had violated their right to freedom of expression (article 10 ECHR).
The Court observed that Parliaments were entitled to react when their members engaged in disorderly conduct disrupting the normal functioning of the legislature. However, on the present facts domestic legislation had not provided for any possibility for the MPs concerned to be involved in the relevant disciplinary procedure. The interference with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression was therefore not proportionate to the legitimate aims pursued, because it was not accompanied by adequate procedural safeguards. Accordingly, the Court found a violation of Article 10.
The applicant’s husband had died in circumstances where there had been a negligent failure to diagnose meningitis shortly after (successful) nasal polyp surgery, although that negligent failure was not necessarily causative. In its Chamber judgment of 15 December 2015, the European Court of Human Rights held that there had been a violation of Article 2 (right to life) of the Convention as to the right to life and, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 2.
Analysis of that decision is provided by Jeremy Hyam QC for the UK HRB. On 2 May 2016 the Grand Chamber Panel accepted the Portuguese Government’s request that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber.
Those in need of some summer reading might consider: Five Ideas to Fight For, by Anthony Lester, recently published. The book describes the development of English law in relation to human rights, equality, free speech, privacy and the rule of law, explaining how our freedom is under threat and why it matters.
UK HRB posts
CA says ex-pats cannot say yes or no to Brexit – David Hart QC
The British Bill of Rights Show: Series 14, Episode 9…*Zzzzzzz* – Adam Wagner
Three Way in the Supreme Court: PJS remains PJS – David Hart QC
The National Preventive Mechanism of the United Kingdom – John Wadham
Bank Mellat’s $4bn claim: CA rules out one element, but the rest to play for – David Hart QC
4 April 2016
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.
by Fraser Simpson
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.,  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:
Consider whether good reasons exist for the absence of the witness.
Consider whether the evidence was the “sole or decisive” decisive evidence against the accused.
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
1 April 2016
This week, the mosaic shrine adorning the wall outside Stockwell underground station once again became the focal point for difficult questions surrounding the police response the terrorist attacks of 2005.
The judgment of a Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Da Silva v the United Kingdom draws a line under a long legal battle mounted by the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, the young Brazilian electrician shot dead by the Metropolitan Police on 22 July 2005 having been mistaken for a suicide bomber.
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30 March 2016
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).
by Fraser Simpson
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24 September 2015
Yesterday morning, in a speech to civic organisations in Glasgow, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that “no responsible government” would consider repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 due to the numerous negative consequences, both in the domestic and international sphere, that would result from such a move – (see a transcript of the speech here).
by Fraser Simpson
Proposals for Repeal of the Human Rights Act
It has been a longstanding Tory policy to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. Such a policy is motivated by discontent over a handful of decisions from the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) that have allegedly “undermine[d] the role of UK courts in deciding on human rights issues”. In October 2014, the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced Tory proposals to treat Strasbourg judgments as “advisory” – irrespective of the potential incoherence between treating judgments in such a way and the UK’s obligations under Article 46, ECHR (see John Wadham’s post here). However, the 2015 Tory manifesto included less specific promises to “scrap the Human Rights Act” in order to “break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights”. Little substantive information has been provided on the development of these plans, apart from an intention, included in the Queen’s speech, to conduct consultations and publish proposals this autumn.
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17 August 2015
Laura Profumo serves us the latest human rights happenings.
In the news:
Lurid show-trial of a vulnerable man, the timely vindication of justice being done, and being seen to be done, a CPS volte-face.
Whatever you think of the Janner trial, it’s now in full swing. The former Labour Peer made his first appearance in court on Friday, facing 22 historic child sex abuse charges. The 87 year old’s committal hearing lasted some 59 seconds, after weeks of legal grappling with his defence lawyers. Any doubt over Janner’s dementia was “dispersed instantly” by his arrival, writes The Telegraph’s Martin Evans: flanked by his daughter and carer, Janner appeared frail and “confused”, cooing “ooh, this is wonderful” as he entered the courtroom. The case will now pass to the Crown Court, with the next hearing due on September 1, where a judge will decide whether the octogenarian is fit to stand trial, or whether a trial of fact is a suitable alternative. If the latter course is taken, a jury will decide if Janner was responsible for his charged actions – no verdict of guilt will be found, and no punishment will be handed down.
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18 July 2015
Photo credit: Guardian
The Queen’s speech suggests a slowing of the Government’s plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. But recent comments from the Scottish Human Rights Commissioner suggest the Conservatives may be considering removal of HRA protections in relation to English and reserved UK-wide matters only, leaving the Human Rights Act in place in the other devolved areas of the UK.
by David Scott
Much ink has been spilled over the Government’s proposals. This article will take a narrow look at Scotland’s relationship with the Human Rights Act, and how devolution may be a future thorn in the Government’s side.
But wait! I thought the Human Rights Act was enshrined in the Scotland Act. Doesn’t that protect the Human Rights Act in Scotland?
Sort of (not really).
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17 May 2015
In the news
“We can be sure of one thing. A battle is coming.” The future of the Human Rights Act still dominates the news, and this quote comes from UKHRB’s Adam Wagner, who suggests five tactics to ensure that human rights are not eroded. Perhaps the most in-depth analysis to date comes from Jack of Kent, who isolates the “seven hurdles” facing the government, including Scotland, Tory backbench rebels, the House of Lords and the wording of the “British Bill of Rights” itself. He summarises:
So the current situation is: if the UK government can address the immense problems presented by Scottish devolution and the Good Friday Agreement, win-over or defeat Conservative supporters of the Act, shove the legislation through the house of lords, work out which rights are to be protected, somehow come up with a draft Bill of British Rights, and also explain why any of this is really necessary, and can do all this (or to do something dramatic) in “one hundred days” then…the Conservatives can meet their manifesto commitment in accordance with their ambitious timetable. But it seems unlikely.
Jack of Kent´s conclusion is echoed by Matthew Scott in the Telegraph (“Gove…faces almost insurmountable odds”), Mark Elliott in Public Law for Everyone (“the HRA…is far more deeply politically entrenched that the UK Government has so far appreciated”) and the Economist (“getting rid of the HRA will be tough – and almost pointless”).
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14 April 2015
This week’s Round-up is brought to you by Alex Wessely.
In the news:
Military chiefs have criticised the influence of Human Rights law in a report published this week, arguing that the “need to arrest and detain enemy combatants in a conflict zone should not be expected to comply with peace-time standards”. This follows a series of cases over the years which found the Ministry of Defence liable for human rights violations abroad, culminating in allegations of unlawful killing in the Al-Sweady Inquiry that were judged “wholly without foundation” in December.
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4 March 2015
After a brief hiatus, the Human Rights Round-up is back. Our new team of expert summarisers – Hannah Lynes, Alex Wessely and Laura Profumo – is installed and ready to administer your regular dose of UK human rights news.
This week, Hannah reports on the Global Law Summit, access to justice, and what’s happening in the courts.
In the News
‘If you wrap yourself in the Magna Carta…you are inevitably going to look ridiculous if you then throw cold water on an important part of its legacy.’ Lord Pannick QC was not alone last week (23-28th February) in suggesting that there was some irony in Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling evoking the spirit of the Magna Carta at his launch of the three-day Global Law Summit.
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27 November 2014
Gough v UK (Application no. 49327/11), 28 October 2014 – Read judgment
The applicant in this case has been repeatedly arrested, convicted and imprisoned for breaching the peace by walking around naked in public. In a judgment handed down recently, the European Court of Human Rights found the UK authorities’ restriction of his rights under Articles 10 and 8 of the Convention, proportionate to the legitimate aim of preventing disorder and crime.
Stephen Gough has a strong conviction that there is nothing inherently offensive about the human body, and that he harms no-one by walking around naked. A really, really strong conviction. Since he set off on a naked walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 2003, he has been nicknamed the ‘naked rambler’ and has spent most of the last eight years in prison, and most of that time solitary confinement.
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21 October 2014
The news last week was that the Foreign Secretary has proposed a revival of a fourteenth century statute in order to prosecute British jihadists who travel to Iraq or Syria to fight. Cries of foul are coming from the usual quarters, and there’s even a protest that the Strasbourg Court would object, which, given the current controversy surrounding that tribunal, may be a good reason in itself for such a move.
In the current froth over the Convention versus “home grown” human rights, there is much talk of the Magna Carta. So may be of interest to some that in the opinion of one of the greatest legal scholars in history, Edward Coke, the Statute of Treason had a legal importance second only to that of the “Great Charter of the Liberties of England”, piloted by feudal barons to limit King John’s power in 1215.
Politics aside, how would this work? On the face of it, a law which has been on the statute books for centuries, and is found to be applicable to a current state of affairs, is an equum donatum whose dental health should not be examined too closely. Although the last person to be convicted under the 1351 Treason Act – the Nazi propagandist William Joyce (otherwise known as Lord Haw Haw)- was hanged, now any British citizen convicted of the offence could be given a life sentence.
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9 July 2013
Brought to you by Andrew Tickell
Radical changes are afoot in Strasbourg. Protocol No. 15, whose outlines were agreed at the Brighton Conference of 2012, is primed for ratification, while at the start of 2014, new Rules of Court will come into effect. Both have the potential to have a wide-ranging impact on applicants. Protocol 15 rewrites the Convention’s preamble, emphasising the Court’s “subsidiary” role in the protection of human rights.
It also modifies two of the admissibility criteria for petitions, pairing back the safeguard clauses initially erected around Protocol 14’s new criteria of “no significant disadvantage” and trimming the time available for applicants to lodge their cases from six months to four.
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24 January 2013
The European Court of Human Rights got off lightly in the Prime Minister’s In-Out speech yesterday, with just a single passing mention. No surprises there, as the speech was about the European Union, a separate organisation from the Council of Europe, which runs the Strasbourg court. Withdrawing from the European Union would not mean withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights.
Yesterday was, however, an exception. Ordinarily, the European Court of Human Rights is a large presence in the in-out Europe debate. And, from the amount of coverage and political argument the court generates, you might be forgiven for thinking it rules against the UK hundreds of times per year. The Court has just released its statistics for 2012, and the figures may surprise you.
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