Judges in Strasbourg are poised to force the Government to rethink a key element of its law and order reforms by outlawing the UK's wide powers to seize criminal assets.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has been asked to rule in favour of a 36-year-old drugs dealer who claims that confiscation of £100,000 he is alleged to have made from his illegal business is a breach of his human rights.
In one of its 25 manifesto pledges, Labour promises to "double the amount of assets" seized from drug traffickers and other criminals. Last month it introduced a new proceeds of crime Bill aimed at increasing the courts' powers to deliver this pledge.
But lawyers acting for Steven Phillips, from Cardiff, have argued that the current law and Labour's proposals reverse the burden of proof by making the defendant prove that his gains are not ill-gotten.
His barrister, Robin Pearse Wheatley, said he was confident thatthis afternoon the Strasbourg judges would find that the UK laws on criminal assets confiscation prevented the defendant from having a fair trial. He said: "It reverses the presumption of innocence because it places a burden on the defendant to show that the goods were acquired legitimately rather than requiring the prosecution to prove its case."
Phillips was jailed for nine years at Newport Crown Court in 1996 for importing large quantities of cannabis resin into the UK. The trial judge warned him he would face an extra two years' imprisonment unless he handed over the estimated £91,400 proceeds of six years of drug trafficking.
In 1997 Phillips was refused leave to appeal against his conviction and sentence, including the confiscation order. A subsequent application for leave to appeal was refused in January 1998 after a full hearing at the Court of Appeal.
The case has since been heard by the ECHR. The issue is also due to be determined when the Law Lords consider two appeals from defendants who claim the confiscation law breaches their human rights.
If the ECHR rules against the UK, the Government will have to consider changing both the current law and proposals in its proceeds of crime Bill, which proposes to set up a criminal assets recovery agency to target the assets of convicted drug traffickers.
Civil groups argue that the Bill would breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. John Wadham, the director of Liberty, said: "These proposals will create a system in which accusations by the police will be enough to force people to disclose all their private financial affairs, first to the police and then in public at the trial."Reuse content