Rights restriction or deprivation: pragmatic balancing

When is a restriction on movement a deprivation of liberty?

In Austin v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolice [2009] UKHL 5 (28 January 2009) crowd control during a May day demonstration in London was the setting for an argument that confinement of the appellants within a police designated zone at Oxford Circus for several hours was a breach of their art 5 ECHR right to “liberty and security of the person”.

Lord Hope delivered the leading opinion, with which the other Law Lords agreed. Whether particular facts amount to a restriction of movement, or to a breach of the right to liberty, is a matter of degree and intensity (21) to which a balancing of conflicting interests applies (27), taking a pragmatic approach which requires good faith and proportionality on the part of the authorities so as to avoid arbitrariness (34).

Some slight – and probably inconsequential – difference in emphasis occurred in the opinions concerning the role of the purpose that the authorities had for restricting the appellants’ movement. Lord Hope noted that purpose had no separate role to play in the balancing exercise other than as part of this requirement for good faith. Lord Walker emphasised (43) that caution was needed as to the role of purpose, as good intentions couldn’t make up for a deficiency in justification for confinement (44), but the focus should be on what the police were doing (47). Lord Scott said that purpose was a high ranking circumstance (39), and Lord Neuberger noted that it would be very different if the police had been detaining the crowd in order to punish them for the disorder that had occurred (63).

There is a small cause for concern over an aspect of this case. The right to liberty was called an “absolute” right (Lord Hope at 2, 15, 18; Lord Walker at 42). That is not a term of art in the Convention. Strictly speaking, the right to liberty is unqualified (except for the qualifications expressed in particular specified situations) but is subject to derogation in accordance with art 15. While the right to liberty can be called a fundamental right of the first rank (Lord Hope at 27), does that necessarily mean that all such fundamental rights of the first rank are vulnerable to qualification by means of balancing? Most people, I suspect, would not accept that the right to a fair trial can be subject to qualification by balancing.

Unfortunately, Lord Hope refers to the right to a fair trial at 31, quoting from para 53 of O’Halloran and Francis v United Kingdom [2008] ECHR 21. This dictum points out that the facts of a case must be considered in determining whether a trial was fair (an obvious comment), but the way it is used makes it look as if it asserts that fairness changes with the circumstances. The comment was made in the course of rejecting an argument that violation of the right to silence amounted to breach of the right to a fair trial, and was plainly correct: violation of the right to silence would normally be sufficient grounds to rule an incriminating statement inadmissible. But in O’Halloran and Francis the evidence had been correctly ruled admissible; nevertheless, there were no fair trial concerns in the particular circumstances.

So, when Lord Hope refers (34) to a pragmatic balancing of fundamental rights which are not subject to restriction or limitation in the Convention, he should not, I suggest, be taken to include the right to a fair trial (except where derogation applies), but his comments correctly refer to other fundamental rights. The other Law Lords, while agreeing with Lord Hope, did not comment on the fair trial point.

I should add that the model described in Austin does not require a restriction of the right to liberty. The so-called balancing is a means of determining whether the restriction on freedom of movement is justified; if it isn’t, then there has been a breach of the right to liberty. It is not a question of restricting the right to liberty to accommodate a justified restriction on the right to freedom of movement. Analogous reasoning could make the reference to trial fairness seem acceptable: there is no question of restricting the right to a fair trial to accommodate a justified restriction on the conduct of the defence; pragmatic balancing may be applied to determine whether a restriction on the way the defence is conducted is justified, and if it is there is no breach of the right to a fair trial. The difficulty with this model is that it converts questions about the rights to liberty or a fair trial into questions about the justifications of restrictions on movement or procedure. The model omits consideration of the content of the rights to liberty or a fair trial. But if those rights warrant being called absolute it would be appropriate to examine what they mean. A justified limitation of one right (to movement or to procedural steps) does not mean that the other (liberty or a fair trial) is not infringed. I have recently referred to the House of Lords decision in R v H (see blog for 20 January 2009). In that case there is a clear separation between these questions: if procedural limitations (on disclosure) are justified, that does not automatically mean that the ensuing trial will be fair.

Austin confirms what must surely be uncontroversial: the right to liberty does not mean a right to resist reasonable measures by the police to prevent damage to property or injury to people. The real controversy was over the reasonableness of the measures taken by the police in this case.

Dealing with unsavouriness

Two cases from the Supreme Court of Canada concern the directions a judge should give to a jury on the need for caution about the evidence of an “unsavoury” witness: R v Khela [2009] SCC 4, applied in R v Smith [2009] SCC 5, both 22 January 2009.

Unsavoury witnesses “…include all witnesses who, because of their amoral character, criminal lifestyle, past dishonesty or interest in the outcome of the trial, cannot be trusted to tell the truth — even when they have expressly undertaken by oath or affirmation to do so.” (3, Fish J delivering the judgment of himself and Binnie, LeBel, Abella, Charron and Rothstein JJ; Deschamps J separately concurred).

The required elements are rational and will no doubt be of interest outside Canada.

There is no precise formula, but the direction must (I summarise):

  1. Identify the evidence about which the jury needs to be cautious;
  2. Explain why caution is necessary;
  3. Caution the jury on the danger of convicting in reliance on the testimony of the unsavoury witness, although the jury is entitled to do so if satisfied that the evidence is true; and
  4. Instruct the jury to look for independent evidence which gives comfort that the unsavoury witness is correct (drawing attention to what evidence is capable of confirming the unsavoury witness in the relevant way).

 A subsidiary appeal point in Khela concerned a direction that wrongly told the jury that the defence needed to prove certain facts in order to support an inference of innocence (58). However, the Court of Appeal had correctly applied the proviso on the basis that in context the misdirection would not have made any difference to the verdicts.

The unsavoury witness directions set out here would be a good framework on which counsel might structure that part of the address to the jury. It is always a good idea to try to persuade the jury in terms that will be repeated by the judge.

Fairness and the right to cross-examine

Inability of the defence to cross-examine a prosecution witness may arise through anonymity or absence, but the accused’s right to a fair trial remains absolute: Al-Khawaja and Tahery v United Kingdom [2009] ECHR 110 (20 January 2009).

The Chamber held (34) that Article 6 § 3(d), the defendant’s 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“,

“…is an aspect of the right to fair trial guaranteed by Article 6 § 1, which, in principle, requires that all evidence must be produced in the presence of the accused in a public hearing with a view to adversarial argument (Krasniki v. the Czech Republic, no. 51277/99, § 75, 28 February 2006). As with the other elements of Article 6 § 3, it is one of the minimum rights which must be accorded to anyone who is charged with a criminal offence. As minimum rights, the provisions of Article 6 § 3 constitute express guarantees and cannot be read, as it was by the Court of Appeal in Sellick … [[2005] EWCA Crim 651], as illustrations of matters to be taken into account when considering whether a fair trial has been held (see Barberà, Messegué and Jabardo v. Spain, 6 December 1988, §§ 67 and 68, Series A no. 146; Kostovski v. the Netherlands, 20 November 1989, § 39, Series A no. 166). Equally, even where those minimum rights have been respected, the general right to a fair trial guaranteed by Article 6 § 1 requires that the Court ascertain whether the proceedings as a whole were fair.”

Further (36):

“Whatever the reason for the defendant’s inability to examine a witness, whether absence, anonymity or both, the starting point for the Court’s assessment of whether there is a breach of Article 6 §§ 1 and 3(d) is set out in Lucà, … [Lucà v. Italy, no. 33354/96, ECHR 2001], at § 40:

“If the defendant has been given an adequate and proper opportunity to challenge the depositions either when made or at a later stage, their admission in evidence will not in itself contravene Article 6 §§ 1 and 3(d). The corollary of that, however, is that where a conviction is based solely or to a decisive degree on depositions that have been made by a person whom the accused has had no opportunity to examine or to have examined, whether during the investigation or at the trial, the rights of the defence are restricted to an extent that is incompatible with the guarantees provided by Article 6 [references omitted].”

Naturally a court will do all it can to counterbalance the adverse effect on the defence of witness anonymity or unavailability. Other material witnesses may be available, there may be expert witnesses who can assist with credibility issues, and the judge may warn the jury of the need to treat with care evidence that had not been subjected to cross-examination. Even so, such measures are not able to overcome the unfairness that arises where a conviction is based solely or to a decisive extent on the evidence of a witness who has not been cross-examined (37):

“”Even when ‘counterbalancing’ procedures are found to compensate sufficiently the handicaps under which the defence labours, a conviction should not be based either solely or to a decisive extent on anonymous statements.” [citing para 76 of Doorsonv. theNetherlands, judgment of 26 March 1996, Reports 1996 II].”

Here the Chamber found violations of Art 6 and awarded damages for the time the appellants had spent in prison.

Under the applicable domestic law here the critical criterion was the risk of unfairness that admission of the challenged evidence would give rise to. The evidence had been wrongly ruled admissible. What if the criterion for admission was the apparent reliability of the evidence? For example, what if the circumstances in which a hearsay statement was made were such as to present a reasonable assurance that it was a reliable statement? Would inability to cross-examine its maker give rise to unfairness if the statement was the sole or decisive evidence against the accused?

It is likely that a criterion for admission such as a reasonable assurance of reliability will be regarded as satisfying the requirement of fairness if, where it is met, it means that cross-examination could not have affected its probative value. See, for example R v Hovell [1987] 1 NZLR 610, (1987) 3 CRNZ 106 (CA), in which the police statement of an elderly rape complainant who had died before these proceedings was admitted to prove that there had been such an offence, committed by a person she could only vaguely describe. The description did not exclude the accused, but it was clear that if she had been asked whether the assailant was the accused she would only have been able to say she didn’t know. The Court, with Cooke P (later, Lord Cooke) presiding, in a judgment delivered by Casey J, concluded that cross-examination here would not have made any relevant difference to her description of the assailant, and her hearsay statement was held to have been correctly ruled admissible. There could not, in this case, have realistically been any dispute over whether the rape had occurred as there was medical evidence corroborating the event and there was no reason why an elderly person should make a false assertion of that kind.

The absolute rule applied by the Strasbourg court is probably subject to an exception for cases where cross-examination could have no real effect; that issue did not arise for decision in the two (unrelated) cases that were jointly decided in Al-Khawaja and Tahery.

Update: Lord Brown has doubted that Al-Khawaja lays down an absolute rule: see his concurring judgment in R v Horncastle [2009] UKSC 14 (9 December 2009). This case, awaited by the Grand Chamber’s Panel before its consideration of the United Kingdom’s request that Al-Khawaja be referred to the Grand Chamber, addresses the different measures to ensure trial fairness as between the continental legal systems and the common law tradition (now reflected in statutory provisions) in relation to the admissibility of hearsay evidence. The issue is hugely important, as Lord Brown emphasises at 113:

“These appeals are of the utmost importance. If the Strasbourg case law does indeed establish an inflexible, unqualified principle that any conviction based solely or decisively on evidence adduced from an absent or anonymous witness is necessarily to be condemned as unfair and set aside as contrary to articles 6(1) and 6(3)(d) of the Convention, then the whole domestic scheme for ensuring fair trials – the scheme now enshrined (as to hearsay evidence) in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and (as to anonymous evidence) in the Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Act 2008 – cannot stand and many guilty defendants will have to go free. It is difficult to suppose that the Strasbourg Court has in fact laid down so absolute a principle as this and, indeed, one exception to it, at least, appears to be acknowledged: the fairness of admitting hearsay evidence from a witness absent as a result of the defendant’s own intimidation. But if this is recognised (and, as others have pointed out, this exception itself involves difficulties of proof) why not recognise other exceptions too provided only and always that the procedures honour the ultimate imperative of a fair trial? That, after all, is the overarching principle for which the great bulk of Strasbourg jurisprudence on article 6 stands.”

See also, R v Couture, blogged here 19 June 2007.

Another blow to legislated sentencing

The non-mandatory nature of the sentencing guidelines has been emphasised in Spears v United States [2009] USSC 21 January 2009.

In using the Guidelines to calculate the sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, based on the quantity of drug involved in the particular offending, the District Court had held that the Guidelines yielded an excessive sentence. There was no other particular reason, arising from the facts of the case, to depart from the guidelines. However there were decisions of other courts which used criticisms of the Guidelines advanced by the Sentencing Commission as grounds for departing from the Guidelines. Referring to those, the District Court here imposed a sentence lower than the guideline range.

The Supreme Court upheld the District Court’s approach:

” … we now clarify that district courts are entitled to reject and vary categorically from the crack-cocaine Guidelines based on a policy disagreement with those Guidelines. Here, the District Court’s choice of replacement ratio was based upon two well-reasoned decisions by other courts, which themselves reflected the Sentencing Commission’s expert judgment … See Perry, 389 F. Supp. 2d, at 307–308; Smith, 359 F. Supp. 2d, at 781–782; Report to Congress 106–107, App. A, pp. 3–6.”

This is an application of Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U. S. ___ (2007) in which the Court had held that “under Booker, the cocaine Guidelines, like all other Guidelines, are advisory only”.

The guidelines have been amended (Nov 2007) after the District Court’s decision in this case. Here are the current guidelines applicable to this offending. These strike one as being complicated. In any event, the judge would have to decide on a sentence independently of the guidelines in order to be able to say whether he should follow them. There is really no substitute for an assessment of the particular offending in its context and in the light of sentences passed in like cases. The likely financial gain obtained or expected from the offending can usually be assessed and is a means of comparing cases.

Roberts CJ, dissenting and joined by Alito J, would have placed form over substance and would thereby have created injustice for the appellant, the rationale – if one can call it that – being that this was not a suitable time to answer a “novel question”.

Not a dies non blog

For a discussion of time limits for filing and serving extradition appeals in the UK, see Mucelli v Govt of Albania [2009] UKHL 2 (21 January 2009).

The phrase “dies non“, used by Lord Neuberger at 84, prompts introspection. So much to do, so many dies nons. Indeed, part of the decision concerns the irritating habit (as I think of it) that the other side – whoever it may be – has of serving documents at the last possible moment.

Today is a virtual dies non in Auckland: next Monday is our anniversary holiday (celebrating the establishment of Auckland province) so today everyone is on “absent Friday”.

This case illustrates the need for a uniform interpretation of extradition appeal time limits throughout the UK, so that from the various legislative contexts it emerges that filing includes serving, that the short time limits are for expeditious handling of cases and cannot – without express legislative permission – be extended by the courts, but at the same time they should not be read down. Filing by fax may be effected moments before midnight on the last day. Personal filing and service must be done before close of normal business hours where a business (or the court) is the recipient, but on dies nons (when the court office or the recipient’s business office is closed all day) the time limit extends to the end of the next open day. [Update: for an example of the prosecution missing a deadline, see Attorney-General’s Reference No 3 of 1999: Application by the British Broadcasting corporation to set aside or vary a Reporting Restriction Order [2009] UKHL 34 (17 June 2009), para 42 per Lord Brown.]

As you can see, today is not a dies non blog.

The limits of legality

Does a decision to release on parole a prisoner serving a determinate sentence have to be made judicially? Is the judicial nature of the original sentencing process sufficient to carry forward to make acceptable an executive decision to refuse parole?

Not every legal system permits the executive to have input on the parole decision. It is not the sort of decision into which there can be legitimate political input: Lord Rodger and Lord Carswell in R(Black) v Secretary of State for Justice [2009] UKHL 1 (21 January 2009), at 50 and 58.

In this case the Secretary refused to accept the advice of the Parole Board and declined – pursuant to s 35 Criminal Justice Act 1991[UK] – to order the release of Mr Black on parole. Lord Brown at 65 placed this provision in its historical context.

Having had his application for judicial review of the Secretary’s decision declined, Mr Black appealed to the Court of Appeal, which held that s 35 was incompatible with art 5(4) of the ECHR which provides:

“Everyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings by which the lawfulness of his detention shall be decided speedily by a court and his release ordered if the detention is not lawful.”

As Lord Brown recognised at 59, several recent decisions of the Court of Appeal held that such parole decisions should be made judicially.

Mr Black’s plan, of course, is to obtain a ruling of incompatibility so that the UK legislature will be encouraged to reform the law by removing the Secretary’s role in the decision process. Surprisingly, Mr Black will now have to seek that ruling from the Strasbourg court, because the Law Lords allowed the Secretary’s appeal in this case.

They did so by a majority of 4 to 1, Lord Phillips dissenting and Lord Carswell hesitatingly agreeing (58) with the majority.

Lord Carswell thought it significant that ECtHR jurisprudence had not extended to the point in issue here, although dicta on analogous points (cases of indeterminate sentences from Belgium and Norway, and cases on recall of paroled prisoners from Lithuania and the UK) recognised the significance of the term of imprisonment having been set judicially at sentencing.

Lord Brown reasoned that the risk that an executive decision would be arbitrary was addressed by the availability of judicial review in domestic law. Determinate sentences do not engage art 5(4), whereas indeterminate sentences do, and if there is to be any fusion that is a matter for the ECtHR to decide (81, 83).

Lord Rodger agreed with Lord Brown. He found that the cases established that, for determinate sentences, the original sentencing process satisfied the prisoner’s right to have the lawfulness of his detention decided by a court. Domestic review proceedings could be taken to check the lawfulness of the Secretary’s refusal to order release. Even if that refusal was unlawful, the remedy was for the Secretary to reconsider the question and decide it lawfully (48).

Baroness Hale agreed with both Lord Rodger and Lord Brown, without giving separate reasons.

Lord Phillips, dissenting, declined to regard the lawfulness of the detention of a prisoner on a determinate sentence as having been determined at the sentencing, where there was subsequently an opportunity for release on parole (4). At that point the legality of the continued detention was a justiciable issue. He found there was “no great leap of reasoning” required to apply to determinate sentences the Strasbourg approach to indeterminate sentences (10), and his analysis of House of Lords dicta supported that conclusion.

It is difficult to see what useful role the Secretary could have in this decision structure. Given that his decision is subject to judicial review, it must be a reasonable decision. The criteria for release will usually focus on whether the offender poses any risk to the community or to the safety of any person. If the Secretary has any information on that he should pass it to the Parole Board. The Board is required to make reasonable decisions, although its function is not judicial.

There are other occasions where thinly-disguised political input is permitted on decisions on the release of potentially dangerous people. See, for example, Criminal Procedure (Mentally Impaired Persons) Act 2003[NZ], s 33(3).

Well, art 5(4) does not say that the lawfulness of detention can only be checked once. But on the other hand, there is a difference between the lawfulness of detention and the appropriateness of detention. If legislation provides that a prisoner shall be released on parole unless certain facts exist (a risk to society, etc), then it is arguable that the lawfulness of continued detention is amenable to judicial scrutiny. But if legislation provides that a prisoner may be released on parole if he satisfies the Board that no such facts exist, then it is arguable that his continued detention is lawful and there is no occasion to scrutinise its legality. In the present case, the legislation distinguished between a duty to release certain prisoners, and a power to release others. Mr Black was in the latter group. On this basis the majority decision may be correct. The anomaly remains: a long-term determinate sentence prisoner may come to be considered for parole after serving the same time as an indeterminate sentence prisoner. Why should they be in different positions concerning who decides on their release? And why should the prisoner who, years ago, merited an indeterminate sentence, be in a better position as far as access to a judicial determination is concerned?

Disclosure at common law: third party status of police

In R v McNeil [2009] SCC 3 (16 January 2009) the Supreme Court of Canada, in a unanimous judgment delivered by Charron J, addressed the disclosure obligations which apply at common law to the Crown and to the police. Of particular interest is the potentially difficult bridging of the information gap that may exist between the Crown and the police. Is the prosecutor obliged to make inquiries of the police for all information that could be relevant to the defence? Are the police obliged to volunteer such information to the prosecutor?

The Court refrained from laying down specific rules, but stated principles.

In this case (where the point was moot as the Court of Appeal had set aside the convictions and the Crown undertook not to re-prosecute Mr McNeil, but the Supreme Court appointed an amicus curiae to argue the issue) the arresting police officer – the Crown’s main witness – had been subject to a police investigation concerning drug-related misconduct which had culminated in disciplinary proceedings and a plea of guilty to a criminal charge. At the time of Mr McNeil’s trial the police had a file concerning the disciplinary proceedings against, and criminal investigation of, the arresting officer.

The Supreme Court held (53) that the police have a duty to disclose to the Crown prosecutor disciplinary procedure information where it is relevant and its discovery should not be left to happenstance. In deciding relevance the police may well be advised to seek the assistance of Crown counsel (59). The issue was not to be decided by reference to whether there was any reasonable expectation of privacy (11) [in this regard, contrast s 29(3)(c) Criminal Disclosure Act 2008[NZ] – not yet in force].

The police and Crown’s duty of disclosure to the defence of fruits of the investigation was established in R v Stinchcombe [1991] 3 SCR 326.

There are some shortcomings in the above New Zealand legislation which become apparent when McNeil is considered. The Criminal Disclosure Act 2008 does not put an obligation on the Crown to seek information from the police (s 15), and it only requires relevant convictions known to the prosecutor to be disclosed (s 13(3)(d)). I have previously commented on the “wide rule/wide request/fairly wide enforceability” structure of this legislation: see blog on McDonald v HM Advocate [2008] UKPC 46, 21 October 2008.

The guidance set out in McNeil can be compared with the approach to claims of public interest immunity laid down in R v H [2004] UKHL 3, where the primary and essential requirement is trial fairness to the accused.