Strasbourg approves the special advocate procedure

The special advocate procedure has received endorsement from the Strasbourg Court: A v United Kingdom [2009] ECHR 301 (19 February 2009).

The special advocate procedure may be resorted to where it is inappropriate to permit a party to the proceedings to know the full extent of the evidence against him. How can the proceedings be made procedurally fair?

Here the issue was whether there were the necessary reasonable grounds to continue the appellants’ (referred to as the applicants here) detention under legislation aimed at preventing terrorist activity. The tribunal, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) had full access to the evidence. Some of the evidence was “closed” – not disclosed – and a special advocate was given full access to it in order to make submissions to SIAC on behalf of the applicants to test its reliability. Of course it would be necessary to devise some means of allowing the special advocate to obtain relevant instructions from the applicants. So each case turned on its own facts as far as the issue of procedural fairness was concerned.

The Grand Chamber’s remarks on the special advocate procedure are at paras 209-217. The important general principle is in para 218:

“… it was essential that as much information about the allegations and evidence against each applicant was disclosed as was possible without compromising national security or the safety of others. Where full disclosure was not possible, [fairness] required that the difficulties this caused were counterbalanced in such a way that each applicant still had the possibility effectively to challenge the allegations against him.”

This does not mean that the party who does not receive full disclosure must be satisfied with a lesser degree of fairness than would otherwise apply.

Here the Grand Chamber found, obviously without going into a lot of detail, that there had been breaches of fairness in respect of some of the applicants. For one group unfairness arose because the link between their financial activities and al’Qaeda was not disclosed so they could not challenge it. For another, the main evidence against them was in closed material and the evidence to which they had access was insubstantial and of no assistance to them in challenging the relevant allegation.

For other references to the special advocate procedure, see the Index to these blogs. An important House of Lords case is R v H [2004] UKHL 3 (pre-dating the start of this site), which I have discussed in “Public interest immunity and fairness to the accused” [2004] NZLJ 301. The special advocate procedure was designed to achieve the absolute standard of fairness to the accused that was required by that case.

Abuse of process fundamentals

There is a small part of the brief judgment of the High Court of Australia in PNJ v R [2009] HCA 6 (10 February 2009) that is of interest to us all.

It concerns the concept of abuse of process, and is as follows (3):

“It is not possible to describe exhaustively what will constitute an abuse of process [Batistatos v Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales [2006] HCA 27; (2006) 226 CLR 256 at 265-267 [9]- [15] per Gleeson CJ, Gummow, Hayne and Crennan JJ; [2006] HCA 27.]. It may be accepted, however, that many cases of abuse of process will exhibit at least one of three characteristics [Rogers v The Queen [1994] HCA 42; (1994) 181 CLR 251 at 286 per McHugh J; [1994] HCA 42. See also Batistatos [2006] HCA 27; (2006) 226 CLR 256 at 267 [15] per Gleeson CJ, Gummow, Hayne and Crennan JJ.]:

(a) the invoking of a court’s processes for an illegitimate or collateral purpose;

(b) the use of the court’s procedures would be unjustifiably oppressive to a party; or

(c) the use of the court’s procedures would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.”

Indeed so.

Unfair, secret and too long

A fair trial is one where the law is accurately applied to facts that are determined without partiality. The partiality aspect of a fair hearing was examined in Olujic v Croatia [2009] ECHR 209 (5 February 2009).

As can be seen from the Index to this site, there are many decisions in which senior appellate courts have considered trial fairness. Olujic v Croatia applies principles that would be universally accepted. This case concerns the proceedings of a disciplinary tribunal which led to the dismissal from office of a judge of the country’s most senior court.

Breaches of the Convention occurred in respect of two associated rights: the proceedings had been too lengthy (over 6 years to determine the employment future of the applicant who was a senior judge): para 90 – 91. Also the hearings had not occurred in public (70 – 76). The link to fairness is apparent from the need for public confidence (70):

” … The public character of proceedings protects litigants against the administration of justice in secret with no public scrutiny; it is also one of the means whereby confidence in the courts can be maintained. By rendering the administration of justice visible, publicity contributes to the achievement of the aim of Article 6 § 1, a fair hearing, the guarantee of which is one of the foundations of a democratic society (see Sutter v. Switzerland, 22 February 1984, § 26, Series A no. 74 ).”

On the central requirements of fair proceedings, violations were also found. Some members of the tribunal (the National Judicial Council) had publicly expressed views in newspaper interviews, given before the hearings were concluded, which indicated they were biased against the applicant.

The importance of impartiality has both a public perspective and a party perspective, and requires consideration of the judge’s subjective interests and of the objective impression that was conveyed:

“57. First and foremost, it is of fundamental importance in a democratic society that the courts inspire confidence in the public and above all, as far as criminal proceedings are concerned, in the accused (see Padovani v. Italy, 26 February 1993, § 27, Series A no. 257-B). To that end Article 6 requires a tribunal falling within its scope to be impartial. Impartiality normally denotes absence of prejudice or bias and its existence can be tested in various ways. The Court has thus distinguished between a subjective approach, that is endeavouring to ascertain the personal conviction or interest of a given judge in a particular case, and an objective approach, that is determining whether he or she offered sufficient guarantees to exclude any legitimate doubt in this respect (see Piersack v. Belgium, 1 October 1982, § 30, Series A no. 53, and Grieves v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 57067/00, § 69, ECHR 2003-XII).”

The subjective and objective tests are interrelated (60) and both may apply on particular facts. Here the Chamber found there were objective grounds to fear lack of impartiality arising from the public statements that three members of the tribunal had made (65 – 68).

Another aspect of fairness was breached: there had been lack of equality of arms, because the tribunal had refused to hear defence evidence. Whereas the ECtHR does not have jurisdiction over the rules of admissibility applicable in member States,

“77. … the requirements of fairness of the proceedings include the way in which the evidence is taken and submitted. The Court’s task is to ascertain whether the proceedings in their entirety, including the way in which evidence was taken and submitted, were fair within the meaning of Article 6 § 1 (see, inter alia, Dombo Beheer B.V. v. the Netherlands, 27 October 1993, § 31, Series A no. 274).”

Here the proposed defence evidence was relevant to advancing a denial of the allegations against the applicant (81), and the tribunal’s reasons for refusing to hear the evidence were inadequate. The ECtHR’s jurisdiction arose from the impact of inequality of arms on the fairness of the hearing:

“84. The Court observes further that, although it is not its task to examine whether the court’s refusal to admit the evidence submitted by the applicant was well-founded, in its assessment of compliance of the procedure in question with the principle of equality of arms, which is a feature of the wider concept of a fair trial (see Ekbatani v. Sweden, 26 May 1988, § 30, Series A no. 134), significant importance is attached to appearances and to the increased sensitivity of the public to the fair administration of justice (see Borgers v. Belgium, 30 October 1991, § 24, Series A no. 214 B). In this connection the Court notes that the NJC admitted all the proposals to hear evidence from the witnesses nominated by the counsel for the Government and none of the proposals submitted by the applicant.”

The refusal to hear the evidence here was another violation of the right to a fair hearing.

This astonishing catalogue of fundamental errors by a tribunal and its members – persons elected from among the members of the judiciary, the State Attorney’s Office, the Croatian Bar Association and law professors, all of whom were persons of high standing – highlights the ease with which a sense of balance can be lost when a case involves high public interest.

The more people in the audience, the more likely it is the juggler will drop the balls.

Extended secondary liability in Queensland

Extended secondary liability was the subject of R v Keenan [2009] HCA 1 (2 February 2009). The High Court of Australia was here considering s 8 of the Criminal Code (Q):

“When 2 or more persons form a common intention to prosecute an unlawful purpose in conjunction with one another, and in the prosecution of such purpose an offence is committed of such a nature that its commission was a probable consequence of the prosecution of such purpose, each of them is deemed to have committed the offence.”

This sort of liability has common law and statutory forms, and it is important to notice the aspects of the definition that differentiate it from others. Here the phrase “of such a nature” and the objective nature of the probability (“was a probable consequence”, not the subjective formulation “was known to be a probable consequence”) are significant. An example of a different formulation is s 66(2) Crimes Act 1961[NZ].

In Keenan an alleged common purpose of inflicting serious physical harm on the victim was followed by the use of a gun by one of the offenders to cause grievous bodily harm to the victim. Was Mr Keenan, the respondent in this appeal, correctly convicted of doing grievous bodily harm with intent to do that harm, pursuant to s 8, if use of a gun was not part of the common purpose?

For discussion of the common law, see Rahman [2008] UKHL 45 (blogged here 3 July 2008). Kirby J (dissenting) preferred not to interpret s 8 in a way that would depart from the common law, which left to the jury the task of determining the boundary of secondary liability in the particular circumstances.

The other members of the Court held that it is not the way that the harm is caused that matters (the fact that it was by use of a gun) but rather it is the nature of the harm that was caused (grievous bodily harm). Then the questions are, what was the common purpose, and was the offence that occurred (in a generic sense, not the precise acts) a probable consequence of the prosecution of that purpose. As Hayne J pointed out (83), this gives effect to the phrase “of such a nature”, whereas Kirby J’s interpretation would focus on the way the offence was committed and ask whether that was a probable consequence of the prosecution of the common purpose. Kiefel J (with whom all the majority agreed) held (115) that the act involved in the commission of the offence is not part of the connection between the common purpose and the offence.

Kirby J supports his dissent with policy grounds (66), emphasising the importance of the jury’s role as the setter of the boundaries of liability in accordance with community values.