Friday, February 06, 2009

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.

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