Europe judges back hearsay evidence


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The Independent Online

Hearsay evidence can be allowed in court cases without breaching the human rights of defendants, judges in Strasbourg said today.

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights was hearing Government appeals in two cases in which men were jailed in the UK mainly or wholly on the basis of witness statements.

An earlier human rights judgment in the same two cases ruled that convictions based on statements from absent witnesses who could not be cross-examined did breach the Human Rights Convention.

But today's final verdict from the Grand Chamber - effectively an appeal court - said each case should be considered on its merits.

To underline the point, the judges ruled differently in the two cases they considered.

In the first, involving 36-year-old London-based Iranian Ali Tahery, sentenced to more than 10 years for stabbing another man, the judges said his conviction did breach the Human Rights Convention, which guarantees "the right to examine witnesses against them or have them examined".

But in the second case, involving Imad Al-Khawaja, a 55-year-old consultant physician at Brighton General Hospital, they ruled his conviction for indecent assault against two women patients did not breach the same provision, even though the key evidence was delivered in a written statement by one of the victims who had been suffering from multiple sclerosis and committed suicide before the trial began.

Although her written statement largely convicted Mr Khawaja, there had been "sufficient counterbalancing factors" in the handling of the case to avoid a human rights violation.

The UK Government had lodged appeals with the Grand Chamber in both cases after an earlier, unanimous, human rights decision that allowing statements from absent witnesses to be read at trial was a human rights breach.

That ruling threatened another major UK backlash against the Human Rights Convention, following a recent controversial ruling about prisoner voting rights.

But in today's final verdict, the Grand Chamber judges declared: "The court agreed with the domestic (UK) courts and found that a conviction based solely or decisively on the statement of an absent witness would not automatically result in a breach of Article 6-1 (of the Human Rights Convention.)

"However, counterbalancing factors had to be in place, including strong procedural safeguards, to compensate for the difficulties caused to the defence."