Judges at the European Court of Human Rights have ruled that ‘hearsay’ evidence can be used to convict someone in a trial.
They were asked to investigate whether the human rights were breached in two criminal cases in the UK where the victims were subjected to considerable violence.
And one pair of convicted criminals even tried to use the death of a witness as a reason to have his damning evidence thrown out of court.
The ruling is especially important in cases of domestic and sexual violence where often the victim has given a statement but is too scared to give evidence in court or may even have been threatened not to turn up.
This was the case with one of the rulings the judges looked into, where a woman was kidnapped from her home in Nottingham. Joseph Graham and Abijah Marquis were convicted of the crime including on the basis of evidence given to police by the victim in a written statement.
Her concerns for her own safety and that of her family’s was so severe she refused to appear as a witness. During her ordeal, the pair had threatened to harm her and contributed, the court ruled, to a genuine fear of her own life which had stopped her attending the trial.
But despite this traumatic experience during and after her kidnapping, Graham and Marquis had pushed for the Strasbourg court to say their human rights had been abused by permitting the woman’s statement to be used, even knowing she had risked imprisonment for not appearing.
The court was also ruling on the case of two men who complained that the evidence of a man they had attacked should not be used because he died before the trial.
Michael Horncastle and David Blackmore were convicted of causing grievous bodily harm with intent following the use of a written statement by their victim. Using a rule in the ECHR they said they had not been allowed a fair trial because they could not cross examine the witness.
But the Court accepted that the death of the victim had made it necessary to admit his statement if his testimony were to be considered in the case. The judge in the trial said that the prosecution case depended on the victim’s statement.
Despite the complaints, judges ruled that there was enough other incriminating evidence available, in particular the admissions by the pair that they had been present at the victim’s flat on the night that he had been attacked.
While the rulings were decided in favour of the UK judicial process, it still highlights that the supreme courts in the country are based outside of it – the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.
The importance of its rulings have a consequence for the every day activities of police and the judiciary and there are many who say that the people who decide on our laws should be directly accountable to the British people.
For those who support EU membership and the Human Rights Convention, they will have breathed a sigh of relief at the ruling today.