THE RIGHTS OF THE DEFENCE, A DEFECT IN THE LEGISLATION, IN THAT IT FAILED TO OFFER ADEQUATE PROTECTION TO THE DEFENCE, THE EVIDENCE OBTAINED THROUGH TELEPHONE SURVEILLANCE, THE PRINCIPLE OF EQUALITY OF ARMS

THE RIGHTS OF THE DEFENCE, A DEFECT IN THE LEGISLATION, IN THAT IT FAILED TO OFFER ADEQUATE PROTECTION TO THE DEFENCETHE EVIDENCE OBTAINED THROUGH TELEPHONE SURVEILLANCE, THE PRINCIPLE OF EQUALITY OF ARMS

38.  The Court reiterates that the guarantees in paragraph 3 of Article 6 are specific aspects of the right to a fair trial set out in paragraph 1. In the circumstances of the case it finds it unnecessary to examine the applicant’s allegations separately from the standpoint of paragraph 3 (b), since they amount to a complaint that he did not receive a fair trial. It will therefore confine its examination to the question of whether the proceedings in their entirety were fair (see Edwards v. the United Kingdom, 16 December 1992, §§ 33-34, Series A no. 247-B, and Rowe and Davis v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 28901/95, § 59, ECHR 2000-II).

39.  It is a fundamental aspect of the right to a fair trial that criminal proceedings, including the elements of such proceedings which relate to procedure, should be adversarial and that there should be equality of arms between the prosecution and defence. The right to an adversarial trial means, in a criminal case, that both prosecution and defence must be given the opportunity to have knowledge of and comment on the observations filed and the evidence adduced by the other party. In addition Article 6 § 1 requires that the prosecution authorities disclose to the defence all material evidence in their possession for or against the accused (see, mutatis mutandis, Rowe and Davis, cited above, § 60, with further references).

40.  However, the entitlement to disclosure of relevant evidence is not an absolute right. In any criminal proceedings there may be competing interests, such as national security or the need to protect witnesses at risk of reprisals or keep secret police methods of investigation of crime, which must be weighed against the rights of the accused. In some cases it may be necessary to withhold certain evidence from the defence so as to preserve the fundamental rights of another individual or to safeguard an important public interest. However, only such measures restricting the rights of the defence which are strictly necessary are permissible under Article 6 § 1. Moreover, in order to ensure that the accused receives a fair trial, any difficulties caused to the defence by a limitation on its rights must be sufficiently counterbalanced by the procedures followed by the judicial authorities (see, mutatis mutandis, Rowe and Davis, cited above, § 61, with further references).

41.  In cases where evidence has been withheld from the defence on public interest grounds, it is not the role of this Court to decide whether or not such non-disclosure was strictly necessary since, as a general rule, it is for the national courts to assess the evidence before them. In any event, in many cases, such as the present one, where the evidence in question has never been revealed, it would not be possible for the Court to attempt to weigh the public interest in non-disclosure against that of the accused in having sight of the material. It must therefore scrutinise the decision-making procedure to ensure that, as far as possible, it complied with the requirements to provide adversarial proceedings and equality of arms and incorporated adequate safeguards to protect the interests of the accused (see, mutatis mutandis, Rowe and Davis, cited above, § 62).

42.  More specifically, Article 6 § 3 (b) guarantees the accused “adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence” and therefore implies that the substantive defence activity on his behalf may comprise everything which is “necessary” to prepare the main trial. The accused must have the opportunity to organise his defence in an appropriate way and without restriction as to the possibility to put all relevant defence arguments before the trial court and thus to influence the outcome of the proceedings (see Can v. Austria, no. 9300/81, § 53, Commission’s report of 12 July 1984, Series A no. 96, and Moiseyev v. Russia, no. 62936/00, § 220, 9 October 2008). Furthermore, the facilities which should be enjoyed by everyone charged with a criminal offence include the opportunity to acquaint himself, for the purposes of preparing his defence, with the results of investigations carried out throughout the proceedings (see C.G.P. v. the Netherlands, (dec.), no. 29835/96, 15 January 1997, and Galstyan v. Armenia, no. 26986/03, § 84, 15 November 2007).

43.  Failure to disclose to the defence material evidence, which contains such particulars which could enable the accused to exonerate himself or have his sentence reduced would constitute a refusal of facilities necessary for the preparation of the defence, and therefore a violation of the right guaranteed in Article 6 § 3 (b) of the Convention (see C.G.P., cited above). The accused may, however, be expected to give specific reasons for his request (see Bendenoun v. France, 24 February 1994, § 52, Series A no. 284) and the domestic courts are entitled to examine the validity of these reasons (see C.G.P., cited above).

44.  Turning to the present case, the Court observes that the number of the destroyed recordings, or the contents thereof, cannot be verified from the material submitted. The Government have not, however, contested the applicant’s submission that the amount of such recordings was of some significance. Nor have they been able to provide any specific information about their contents.

45.  As to the Government’s contention that the applicant had only pleaded the relevance of the destroyed recordings after having submitted his letter of appeal to the Court of Appeal, the Court notes that under domestic law the Court of Appeal was empowered to consider questions of both fact and law, and it was still open to the applicant to request new evidence to be produced at that stage. Moreover, the Government have not argued that the requested recordings would, in fact, have been available in the District Court proceedings, any more than in the proceedings before the Court of Appeal. The Court notes in this connection that, although the actual time of destruction of the recordings in question remains unclear, it had presumably taken place in the course of the pre-trial investigation. In this respect the Court refers to the relevant provision of the Coercive Measures Act in force at the relevant time (see paragraph 21 above). As to the Government’s argument that the applicant could have described the contents of the destroyed recordings, the Court considers that the applicant could not have been expected to announce his alleged involvement in a different offence, punishable by law, prior to any charges having been brought against him.

46.  The Court reiterates that the requirements of Article 6 presuppose that having given specific reasons for the request for disclosure of certain evidence which could enable the accused to exonerate himself, he should be entitled to have the validity of those reasons examined by a court. Although the applicant, in this case, must have known the contents of the destroyed recordings, as far as they involved him, and even if he had been able to put questions during the trial concerning all of the conversations with the other defendants, the Court points out that the national courts did not find the defendants’ allegations about the purchase of illegal weapons credible, for lack of other supporting evidence (see paragraphs 12 and 17 above). Furthermore, the Court of Appeal did not refuse to order the disclosure of the requested recordings on the ground that the applicant had not given specific and acceptable reasons for his request. Instead, it declined to render a decision in that respect, as the recordings had been destroyed and could thus not have been disclosed to the defence or produced to the court (see paragraphs 15 and 16 above).

47.  Even though the police and the prosecutor were obliged by law to take into consideration both the facts for and against the suspect, a procedure whereby the investigating authority itself, even when co-operating with the prosecution, attempts to assess what may or may not be relevant to the case, cannot comply with the requirements of Article 6 § 1. Moreover, it is not clear to what extent the prosecutor was, in fact, involved in the decision to destroy those recordings which were not included in the case file. In this case, the destruction of certain material obtained through telephone surveillance made it impossible for the defence to verify its assumptions as to its relevance and to prove their correctness before the trial courts.

48.  The Court finds that the present case is different from, inter alia, Fitt v. the United Kingdom [GC] (no. 29777/96, ECHR 2000-II) and Jasper v. the United Kingdom [GC] (no. 27052/95, 16 February 2000) where the Court was satisfied that the defence were kept informed and were permitted to make submissions and participate in the decision-making process as far as possible and noted that the need for disclosure was at all times under the assessment of the trial judge, providing a further, important, safeguard. In those cases the Court found no violation under Article 6 § 1 (see Fitt, §§ 48-49, and Jasper, §§ 55-56). The Court recalls that, in this case, the decision regarding the undisclosed evidence was, presumably, made in the course of the pre-trial investigation without providing the defence with the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process.

49.  In the present case the Court further notes that the contested measure stemmed from a defect in the legislation, in that it failed to offer adequate protection to the defence, rather than any misconduct of the authorities, who were obliged by law, in force at the time, to destroy the impugned recordings (see paragraph 21 above). The Court observes that in the Government Bill for the amendment of the Coercive Measures Act it was considered problematic that information supporting the innocence of the suspect could be destroyed before the resolution of the case (see paragraph 22 above). The relevant provision was amended with effect from 1 January 2004 with a view to better safeguarding the rights of the defence. This amendment, however, came too late for the applicant.

50.  Having regard to the above considerations, the Court concludes that there has been a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention taken together with Article 6 § 3 (b) of the Convention.

II.  ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 6 § 2 OF THE CONVENTION

51.  The applicant also complained under Article 6 § 2 of the Convention that the presumption of innocence had not been respected as he had been made to bear the burden of proof about not being involved in the purchase of illegal drugs. The said Article reads:

“2.  Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.”

52.  The Government contested that argument.

53.  The Court reiterates that, as a general rule, it is for the national courts to assess the evidence before them, while it is for the Court to ascertain that the proceedings considered as a whole were fair, which in the case of criminal proceedings includes the observance of the presumption of innocence. Article 6 § 2 requires, inter alia, that when carrying out their duties, the members of a court should not start with the preconceived idea that the accused has committed the offence charged; the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and any doubt should benefit the accused. Thus, the presumption of innocence will be infringed where the burden of proof is shifted from the prosecution to the defence (see Telfner v. Austria, no. 33501/96, § 15, 20 March 2001, with further references).

54.  The Court observes that, in this case, and subject to its above findings on the applicant’s complaint under Article 6 §§ 1 and 3 (b) of the Convention, the District Court convicted the applicant after adversarial proceedings, in which he had the possibility to challenge the evidence produced against him. The applicant’s conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeal after a full review of the case in an oral hearing. Both courts gave reasons for their decisions. Having regard to the facts of the case, and given its subsidiary role regarding the assessment of evidence, the Court cannot conclude that the prosecutor had failed to establish a convincing prima facie case against the applicant. There is no indication that the domestic courts had a preconceived idea of the applicant’s guilt. In these circumstances it cannot be said that the domestic courts had shifted the burden of proof to the defendant (see, a contrario, Telfner v. Austria, cited above, § 18). It follows that this complaint must be rejected as being manifestly ill-founded, pursuant to Article 35 §§ 3 and 4 of the Convention.

FOR THESE REASONS, THE COURT UNANIMOUSLY

1.  Declares the complaints concerning the lack of equality of arms and the right to adequate facilities for the preparation of the applicant’s defence admissible and the remainder of the application inadmissible;

2.  Holds that there has been a violation of Article 6 § 1 of the Convention taken together with Article 6 § 3 (b) of the Convention;

CASE OF NATUNEN v. FINLAND, FOURTH SECTION, (Application no. 21022/04), JUDGMENT, 31 March 2009, FINAL, 30/06/2009

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