Key Strasbourg Ruling on Hearsay Evidence and “Judicial Dialogue”

15 Dec 2011

Eric Metcalfe acted on behalf of the NGO intervener JUSTICE in a landmark judgment by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Al Khawaja and Tahery v United Kingdom.

The much-anticipated ruling came in the wake of the judgment of the UK Supreme Court in R v Horncastle in late 2009 in which the Supreme Court had strongly criticised the earlier chamber judgment of the European Court in Al Khawaja. At issue was the use of hearsay evidence under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 as the “sole or decisive” basis for a person’s conviction, and whether this was compatible with the right to cross-examine witnesses as part of the right to a fair trial under Article 6(3)(d) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK Supreme Court complained that the European Court of Human Rights had misunderstood the safeguards in the 2003 Act that prevented unfairness to the accused. The UK government therefore sought a referral to the Grand Chamber and a hearing was held in May 2010.

In its judgment, the Grand Chamber upheld its previous rulings that a conviction based “solely or decisively” on the testimony of absent witnesses was likely to breach the right to a fair trial under article 6 unless it could be shown that “there are sufficient counterbalancing factors in place”, including “measures that permit a fair and proper assessment of the reliability of that evidence to take place”. The Grand Chamber ruled that the safeguards available in the case of one of the applicants (Al Khawaja) had been sufficient to meet fair trial concerns, but found the UK government in breach of article 6(3)(d) in relation to the second applicant, Mr Tahery.

In addition to its implications for “sole or decisive” rule under article 6, the Grand Chamber ruling has a significant public law dimension as it relates to the process of “judicial dialogue” under section 2 of the Human Rights Act between the UK Supreme Court and the European Court in cases in which the UK Supreme Court has serious concerns about the implications of a Strasbourg ruling for UK law. In a concurring opinion, the European Court’s President Sir Nicolas Bratza described the case as “a good example of the judicial dialogue between national courts and the European Court on the application of the Convention”.