European court ruling on right to silence may jeopardise convictions

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The Independent Online

Dozens of criminals could have their convictions overturned after a European court ruled yesterday that a British couple's right to silence was breached during their trial.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourgfound that the Appeal Court in London was wrong not to declare the convictions of William and Karen Condron unsafe after the trial judge had misdirected the jury on the law of silence.

The court held that the right to silence lay at the heart of the notion of a fair procedure under Article 6 of the European Convention. Lawyers said the case showed that the previous government's change in the law, by allowing an adverse inference to be drawn from a suspect'srefusal to answer police questions, needed proper safeguards. Michael Howard, as the Conservative Home Secretary, successfully brought in legislation aimed at stopping professional criminals habitually clamming up under police questioning. The new law now allows juries in certain circumstances to draw an adverse inference when suspects maintain their silence during questioning. Lawyers estimate that there were dozens of similar cases which could now come before the Court of Appeal.

William and Karen Condron were arrested at their south London flat in1995 on suspicion of supplying heroin. They did not answer police questions during interview. The trial judge gave the jury the option of drawing an adverse inference from the applicants' silence during interview. They were found guilty. Police found in the couple's flat 16 wraps of heroin weighing between 0.07g and 0.09g and a further quantity of heroin weighing 1.19g. Mr and Mrs Condron gave evidence at their trial and said that the heroin found in the flat had been for their own personal use. Although the Court of Appeal found the trial judge's direction to the jury on the question of the applicants' silence deficient, it was satisfied that the convictions were safe. But the European court said this meant that their trial had been unfair.

Mary Cunneen, associate director of Liberty and the couple's solicitor, said: "The judgment affirms the fundamental importance of the right to silence in the criminal trial process. Any attempts to erode this right must be treated with the utmost caution. In future, courts will have to be extremely careful in drawing inferences."

She added: "The Court of Appeal will have to change its approach ... to consider not only whether the conviction as a whole is safe but also whether it is fair within the terms of Article 6."