The right to legal advice

When does a person who is questioned by the police have the right to legal advice?

There was a tussle over this in Ambrose v Harris, Procurator Fiscal, Oban (Scotland) [2011] UKSC 43 (6 October 2011), and it turned on whether the UKSC should merely keep pace with Strasbourg jurisprudence or whether it should do more. By doing more it would extend a rule excluding evidence beyond the extent currently recognised. The majority were of the conservative view: Lord Hope at 17-20, Lord Brown agreeing 73, Lord Dyson agreeing 88, 105, Lord Matthew Clarke agreeing 116. Lord Kerr dissented on this point, referring to the Ullah-type reticence 126 of the majority and to the duties of courts to resolve issues 129 [see R v Special Adjudicator, ex parte Ullah [2004] UKHL 26]. He also mentioned 126 the “characteristically stylish twist” given to Lord Bingham’s oft-cited dictum in Ullah in Al-Skeini [2007] UKHL 26 by Lord Brown (and see my note on the dissent in this case in the Grand Chamber [2011] ECtHR 1093).

So that’s settled: the UKSC follows Strasbourg jurisprudence and does not extend it. The relevant Strasbourg rule excludes all confessional statements made under detention in police stations before the suspect had an opportunity to obtain legal advice. Here there were, in addition to the settled approach, policy reasons for not extending this rule: Lord Hope at 15, 58, 60; Lord Brown at 78, 87; Lord Dyson at 99-105; Lord Matthew Clarke at 120. Strictly, I shouldn’t say the rule “excludes” the evidence, because Strasbourg leaves admissibility to national courts, but the finding of a breach of the fair trial right through use of the evidence will inevitably lead to a ruling of exclusion to avoid that unfairness, so it comes down to the same thing.

In Ambrose incriminating answers to police questions had been given in three cases at times before detention in police stations and when the defendants had not been given an opportunity to obtain legal advice.

The three cases concerned respectively (Ambrose) roadside questioning before breath alcohol procedures were undertaken, (M) questions at the defendant’s home aimed at obtaining admissions to a serious assault, and (G) the questioning of a handcuffed defendant during execution of a search warrant at his flat. The Art 6(3) rights apply to a person “charged”, and this has been held to mean when the person’s situation was substantially affected, when suspicion was being seriously investigated and the prosecution case was being compiled (Lord Brown at 62).

The Court unanimously held that although none of the statements were inadmissible by virtue of a rule, admission of G’s statements would be a breach of his Convention rights because he was detained in coercive circumstances within the concept of “charged” in Art 6(3). The majority held there was no breach of Art 6 in admission of Ambrose and M’s statements but that the admissibility issue should be referred back for determination because there was arguably an issue of fairness.

Lord Kerr, dissenting on Ambrose and M, held that admission of all the confessional statements would be in breach of an extended application of Art 6 because the police believed each defendant had committed an offence and the answers would be given in evidence, and in also in relation to G, he was in custody.

The Supreme Court referred, in addition to Strasbourg jurisprudence, to cases from Canada (R v Grant [2009] SCC 32, noted here on 18 July 2009 – Lord Brown calling its judgments “immensely long” (81)) – and the USA (Miranda v Arizona 384 US 436 (1966)), and of course to its own decision in Cadder v HM Advocate [2010] UKSC 43 (noted here 27 October 2010) concerning persons detained in a police station.

Just as people in Scotland may feel a little irked at having the UKSC decide points of their criminal law, so too – we might reasonably suspect – may the UKSC feel irked at having the Strasbourg Court decide points of UK law. Lord Brown at 86: “…whatever else one may say about the Strasbourg jurisprudence …”. Humpf. And in furtherance of that attitude there was a marvelous sneakiness at play here: G got the evidence excluded and so received the benefit of what was effectively an extension of the very rule the Court majority was professing not to be allowed to extend.

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