Al-Khawaja and Tahery v United Kingdom – 26766/05  ECHR 2127 (15 December 2011)
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights recently considered the admissibility of statements made by an absent witness and the application of the 'sole or decisive test' in the context of the right to a fair trial. It held by majority that convictions based solely or decisively on such statements will not automatically constitute a breach of the right to a fair trial contained in article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The majority considered that in such cases, the appropriate inquiry is whether sufficient counterbalancing factors are in place to ensure that the overall fairness of the trial is not unacceptably prejudiced. Such factors may include whether the accused is able to test the evidence of an absent witness by means other than cross-examination and other measures, which permit a fair and proper assessment of the reliability of that evidence (such as whether the evidence is corroborated).
This decision considered two applications, which arose out of hearsay evidence admitted pursuant to legislative exceptions to the hearsay rule, in each applicant's trial in the UK Crown Court. Both applicants' convictions had been upheld on appeal to the UK Court of Appeal.
Mr Al-Khawaja had been convicted of indecently assaulting two patients while they were under hypnosis. One complainant was unable to give evidence in person because she died before trial, but her statement to police was read to the jury. Two friends whom she had told of the alleged assault also gave evidence. The Trial Judge found, and the Grand Chamber accepted, that her evidence was decisive in respect of the count alleged.
Mr Tahery had been convicted of wounding with intent following the stabbing of another man during a fight. Uncorroborated evidence of a witness (T) was given by way of statement because T was too frightened to give oral evidence. The Grand Chamber found this statement to be the decisive, if not the sole, evidence against Mr Tahery.
The Grand Chamber unanimously found a breach of article 6 in the case of Mr Tahery but, by majority, rejected Mr Al-Khawaja's application. The relationship between the right to a fair and public hearing (article 6(1)) and the principle that everyone charged with a criminal offence has, as a minimum right, the right to examine or have examined witnesses against him (article 6(3)(d)), in the European Convention was of critical importance.
In January 2009, a Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights had considered these applications and held that article 6(3)(d) was an express guarantee, which could not be considered merely as a matter to be taken into account in assessing the fairness of a trial. It therefore found a violation of article 6(1), read in conjunction with article 6(3)(d), in respect of each application. In R v Horncastle  UKSC 14 (a later decision discussed by the Grand Chamber), the UK Supreme Court declined to follow the Chamber's approach and rejected any principle on the basis of which a conviction based solely or decisively on evidence provided by an absent or anonymous witness must necessarily be set aside.
The decision of the Grand Chamber explained that the guarantees in article 6(3)(d) are specific aspects of the right to a fair hearing in article 6(1), and that the primary concern under article 6(1) is to “evaluate the overall fairness of the criminal proceedings”. Although it reaffirmed the rationale of the 'sole or decisive test', the Grand Chamber considered that the admission of hearsay evidence, which is the sole or decisive evidence against a defendant does not constitute an 'automatic' breach of article 6. In determining the question of fairness, the rules of evidence of the legal system concerned must be taken into account. The Grand Chamber noted that these legislative schemes are designed as protective mechanisms in respect of the hearsay evidence of absent witnesses. While the relevant UK legislative provisions were found to be “in principle, strong safeguards designed to ensure fairness”, the Grand Chamber looked beyond these provisions to ensure that the evidence admitted pursuant to them did not compromise the fairness of the trials. In respect of each application, the Grand Chamber considered:
- whether it was necessary to admit the witness statement;
- whether the untested evidence was the sole or decisive basis of conviction; and
- whether there were sufficient counterbalancing factors to ensure that each trial, judged as a whole, was fair.
In Al-Khawaja's case, the Trial Judge made clear that the statement was decisive evidence in respect of the relevant charge. The death of the witness made it plainly necessary to admit the statement if her evidence was to be received. The statement was recorded in proper form, corroborative evidence was given at trial by two of the complainant's friends (with only minor inconsistencies), and there were strong similarities between the accounts of the assaults on the two complainants, between whom there was no evidence of any collusion. In that context, the majority found that there was no breach of article 6.
In Tahery's case, T was the only witness who had claimed to see the stabbing, his eyewitness statement was uncorroborated and the statement had been made two days after the event. The Grand Chamber considered that the statement constituted at least the decisive, if not the sole, evidence against Tahery. No witness, when questioned at the scene, claimed to have seen Tahery stab the complainant. The Grand Chamber considered that neither the ability of Tahery to challenge the evidence by giving evidence himself or calling other witnesses, nor the warning by the Trial Judge to the jury to approach T's evidence with care, was sufficient to “counterbalance the handicap under which the defence laboured”. Even if Tahery had given evidence, he was unable to test the truthfulness and reliability of the evidence of the sole witness who was willing or able to say what he had seen. At best, the other evidence only provided indirect support for T's evidence. Examining the fairness of the proceedings as a whole, the Grand Chamber concluded that there were not sufficient counterbalancing factors to prevent a breach of article 6.
The Court ordered that the United Kingdom pay Mr Tahery EUR 6000 as compensation for distress and anxiety, and EUR 12000 for his legal costs.
Relevance to the Victorian Charter
Section 25(2)(g) of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) expressly provides that the ‘minimum guarantee’ to examine or have examined witnesses against an accused is subject to contrary provision by law. On that basis, the exception to the hearsay rule in criminal proceedings where the maker of a statement is not available (provided by section 65 of the Evidence Act 2008 (Vic) and referred to by the Grand Chamber in its comparative analysis), would appear to be clearly inconsistent with any 'automatic' application of the sole or decisive test. However, the analytical approach of the majority may provide some guidance in approaching the application of the exclusionary provisions in Pt 3.11 of the Evidence Act in the context of section 25 of the Charter.
The decision can be found online at: http://www.bailii.org/eu/cases/ECHR/2011/2127.html
Ben Mee is a lawyer at Allens Arthur Robinson