All posts by Appeals Barrister

Pressure to plead guilty

I’ve written a piece for justice gap on the sentencing council’s latest consultation, and whether credit for a guilty plea places undue pressure on the innocent. I think that it does. You can find the piece here. If you subscribe to Sentencing News, a “long read” version of this piece is in the next edition.

Appeals Barrister

Proving Innocence: Miscarriage of Justice Compensation

Update 13/4/17: The Supreme Court has granted Mr Nealon and Mr Hallam permission to appeal. The appeal will be listed in due course. 

The Divisional Court has rejected judicial review claims by Victor Nealon and Sam Hallam: [2015] EWHC 1565 (Admin). The men, who were wrongfully convicted and spent many years in prison, argued that the new scheme for compensating victims of miscarriages of justice offends the requirements of Article 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights: the presumption of innocence. To obtain compensation they were required to show that the new facts which led to their convictions being quashed proved their innocence. 

The issue has been controversial ever since Charles Clarke abolished the ex gratia payment scheme. The initial problem was identifying what was meant by the term “miscarriage of justice” in s.133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. It had been thought this was put to bed by the Supreme Court’s decision in R (Adams) v Secretary of State for Justice [2011] 2 WLR 1180, in which the Court held (by a 5-4 decision) that a “miscarriage of justice” is where the evidence against the person was so undermined that no conviction could possibly be based upon it. It rejected the argument that the test was limited to cases where the new facts proved the person’s innocence.

In response, parliament introduced s.175 of the the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime & Policing Act 2014, so that the definition rejected by the Supreme Court became the legal standard for establishing a “miscarriage of justice”. In the Adams case, 3 of the 5 in the majority also held that Article 6(2) ECHR had no part to play. The justices in the minority agreed, although its reasons for doing so were different. Mr Nealon and Mr Hallam argued that the view of the justices on Article 6(2) did not bind the lower court, as the minority view resulted from a line of reasoning that was otherwise rejected by the majority (that s.133 required clear proof of innocence). It did not therefore form part of the ratio (rationale) of the decision.

The Divisional Court disagreed, and considered itself bound by  to reject the claims. The matter is complicated further by the fact that since the Supreme Court’s decision, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) took a different view on the applicability of Article 6(2). In Allen v United Kingdom [2013] 36 BHRC 1, which concerned a decision under the old test, the Grand Chamber held that compensation decisions of this type were (at least in theory) justiciable under Article 6(2). Although it dismissed Ms Allen’s claim, it indicated that the outcome would likely have been different had Ms Allen been subjected to a “clear innocence” test.

In the spirit of the type of dialogue that sometimes gets lost in the argument on the Human Rights Act, the Divisional Court disagreed with the ECtHR. It held that, even if it was not bound by the Supreme Court’s decision, it would have rejected the ECtHR’s reasoning . It considered that the Supreme Court was right to find that compensation claims of this type are in a special category (“lex specialis”), and do not engage Article 6(2) (thus reminding us, once again, that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of human rights in the UK, and that the Courts do not slavishly follow Strasbourg rulings). The Court endorsed remarks by Lord Phillips in Adams that the application of Article 6(2) in the present context is “one of the more remarkable examples of the fact that the Convention is a living instrument”. The riposte to which is, perhaps, that there is little surprising about the proposition that requiring a person to establish his innocence offends the presumption of innocence. The controversy lies in whether the compensation application is sufficiently linked to the criminal proceedings to invoke Article 6, which is concerned with the right to a fair trial. There is now a divergence of opinion between the UK courts and Strasbourg on that issue.

Fundamental to the Divisional Court’s reasoning was its acceptance of the Secretary of State’s submission that an applicant for compensation is not required to prove his innocence. That, it said, is because the test is whether the new fact establishes the person’s innocence, not whether in fact he is innocent. Although this was a distinction that Lord Phillips made in Adams, it was not one that the other justices had made, and the claimants submitted that it was not one of substance. Circumscribing the method by which innocence must be proved, they said, did not alter the fact that innocence must still be proved. Nevertheless, the Court found that there was a proper distinction to be made. Applying that reasoning, it held that the new test does not offend Article 6(2) ECHR.

The claimants have sought permission to appeal the decision, including on the grounds that the Supreme Court should have the opportunity to consider the effect of Allen v United Kingdom. Some, including Lord Hope, have suggested that the Justice Secretary Michael Gove needs to look at this issue again. In the meantime, those who have been wrongly convicted are likely, absent the very clearest proof of innocence, to go uncompensated by the state.

The Nealon & Hallam Case: Human Rights in Action

When Michael Gove turns up for work at Petty France this week, his first job (we are told) is to oversee the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998. Topically, therefore, the first significant piece of litigation of his tenure as Lord Chancellor, which is to be heard by the Divisional Court on 12 and 13 May, invokes the Human Rights Act to challenge primary legislation.

Inconveniently for Mr Gove the claimants, Victor Nealon and Sam Hallam, are not foreign criminals, or terrorists, but rather are 2 men who were wrongfully convicted and spent many years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Background to the Nealon case can be found here, and a very recent interview with Sam Hallam setting out the impact of his wrongful conviction is here.

The government has refused to compensate the men, having last year introduced legislation (s..175 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014) which means that only those who can establish beyond reasonable doubt that they are innocent will be compensated. The claimants argue that this requirement offends the presumption of innocence, which has its roots in English common law, but is incorporated within Article 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Also topically (given the unlikelihood of a Human Rights Act repeal taking effect in either jurisdiction), the new provisions do not apply in Scotland or Northern Ireland, where a more generous test for compensation is applied in accordance with an earlier Supreme Court ruling.

The government is making various arguments in opposition to the claim, including that presumption of innocence was never intended to apply to this type of scenario, and that the Strasbourg case law relied upon by the claimants should not be followed in view of what it says is a binding decision by our own Supreme Court that Article 6(2) does not apply in this context.

Whatever the outcome of the case, therefore, it shows that the Human Rights Act is not always used to argue unpopular cases that offend “common sense”, and provides a backdrop for the battles to come to define the future of Human Rights in England and Wales.

I am acting for the claimant Victor Nealon alongside Joseph Markus, also from Garden Court North Chambers, instructed by Mark Newby of Quality Solicitors Jordans, whose earlier article on the Nealon case and its implications can be found here

Bad News for Good Character

In R v Hunter & Ors [2015] EWCA Crim 631, a specially constituted 5-member Court of Appeal (Thomas CJ, Sir Brian Leveson P, Hallett LJ, Coulson & Globe JJ) considered the question of when a good character direction is required, and the effect on the safety of convictions where one is required but is not given. Judgment was handed down this morning.

If the decision to constitute a 5-member court seemed ominous (usually a sign that the Court is to “clarify” or amend the law), so it proved. In one sense it is fortunate that the Court was  bound by House of Lords’ authority that the direction is required in cases of absolute good character. It made little attempt to hide its scepticism about the need for good character directions at all, Hallett LJ saying at [67]

“Many have questioned, with some justification in our view, whether the fact someone has no previous convictions makes it any the more likely they are telling the truth and whether the average juror needs directing that a defendant who has never committed an offence of the kind charged before may be less likely offend. Nevertheless we are bound by Vye and Aziz”.

This bold approach of trusting jurors’ “common sense” featured again in Johnstone’s case (one of the 5 conjoined appeals) where the failure to give a direction that the recent complaint evidence did not amount to independent corroboration was not considered fatal to the safety of the conviction because: “It would have been quite clear to the jury that the complaints were made by [the complainant] herself”: [137]. The difficulty with that approach is that one could extend it to a great many legal directions, but history tells us that would hardly be wise (“it must have been obvious that this was a fleeting glimpse identification”).

Against the backdrop, it comes as little surprise that the Court has watered-down down the circumstances in which a good character direction (or a modified one) is required. The judgment mostly affects cases where the accused has previous convictions for offences in a different category to those alleged.

The Court held, consistently with a general trend, that the failure to give an adequate good character direction often will not be fatal to the safety of the conviction: [90]. More worrying, however, was how it approached the question of safety in the individual cases, with little weight attached to the fact that these were, for the most part, cases of “word against word”. The Court showed a ready willingness to conclude that the cases against the respective appellants were strong. In Johnstone’s case the convictions were by majority, and the jury could not agree on certain counts, yet the prosecution case was nonetheless described as “extremely strong”: [143].

The most significant part of the judgment is the Court’s conclusion that a judge will now only have a discretion to treat a defendant as being of “effective” good character where his/her convictions are old, minor and have no relevance to the charge. This seems unduly restrictive as it apparently excludes convictions that are more recent, but which are nonetheless minor and have no relevance to the charge: [80]. In the case of defendants with previous convictions for offences in a different category than the one charged (but which are not old, minor and irrelevant),  the Court expressed scepticism as to the need for such a direction at all, but held that the judge has a very broad (“open textured”) discretion on whether to give a modified direction: [83], which can only be impugned on Wednesbury grounds: [97]. In other words, a defendant who does not meet the strict criteria for “effective” good character is at the mercy of the judge in determining whether any direction should be given.

On a practical note, the Court observed that CrPR 35.4 says that a person wishing to introduce evidence of bad character must serve notice of that intention. It considered that this might apply to a defendant who puts in his own “form” in order invite a good character direction: [101]. In any event, the Court was clear that as a matter of good practice the defence should put the Court on notice of its intentions as early as possible, and certainly before the evidence is introduced. This will allow for argument about whether a direction should be given, and if so its terms: [102]. This at least marks the end of the days of advocates having to take a gamble on whether to introduce their client’s character.

Applying these principles, the Court dismissed each of the 5 appeals. The rejection of Hunter’s appeal is particularly dispiriting. He had one dishonesty conviction recorded against him and the judge had agreed to give the full good character direction; however he did not deliver on the credibility limb. The Court attached weight to the fact that trial counsel had not raised the issue at the time: [156], which seems of doubtful relevance given the judge’s decision that a direction was required. The approach of the Court seems more concerned with stemming out-of-time appeals than with fairness to defendants.

Further the Court’s decided that, despite the judge’s view, Hunter was not in any event entitled to the credibility limb, so that the direction in his case was adequate. The lesson appears to be that where a judge declines to give the direction his or her discretion will rarely, if ever, be interfered with. Conversely, if he/she deems the direction appropriate, but comes up short, this will not carry any weight unless the Court agrees that a direction was required, only then if objections have been raised by trial counsel, and only if it renders the conviction unsafe having regard to the wider facts.

I will be providing further analysis of this, and other recent cases, at the Criminal Law Friendly Society Spring Conferences in Leeds on 24 April 2016, and Manchester on 1 May. The paper will also be presented at the event in Birmingham on 8 May. The events attract 7 hours CPD and places can be booked at www.criminallawfriendlysociety.com

Appeals Barrister