European Court of Human Rights - case of Rowe and Davis v. the United Kingdom (2000) (excerpts)

European Court of Human Rights - case of Rowe and Davis v. the United Kingdom (2000) (excerpts)

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61.  However, as the applicants recognised (see paragraph 54 above), 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 (see, for example, the Doorson v. the Netherlands judgment of 26 March 1996, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1996-II, p. 470, § 70). 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 (see the Van Mechelen and Others v. the Netherlands judgment of 23 April 1997, Reports 1997-III, p. 712, § 58). 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 the Doorson judgment cited above, p. 471, § 72, and the Van Mechelen and Others judgment cited above, p. 712, § 54).

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63.  During the applicants' trial at first instance the prosecution decided, without notifying the judge, to withhold certain relevant evidence on grounds of public interest. Such a procedure, whereby the prosecution itself attempts to assess the importance of concealed information to the defence and weigh this against the public interest in keeping the information secret, cannot comply with the above-mentioned requirements of Article 6 § 1. Indeed this principle is recognised by the English case-law from the Court of Appeal's judgment in R. v. Ward onwards (see paragraphs 37 et seq. above).

64.  It is true that at the commencement of the applicants' appeal, prosecution counsel notified the defence that certain information had been withheld, without however revealing the nature of this material, and that on two separate occasions the Court of Appeal reviewed the undisclosed evidence and, in ex parte hearings with the benefit of submissions from the Crown but in the absence of the defence, decided in favour of non-disclosure.

65.  However, the Court does not consider that this procedure before the appeal court was sufficient to remedy the unfairness caused at the trial by the absence of any scrutiny of the withheld information by the trial judge. Unlike the latter, who saw the witnesses give their testimony and was fully versed in all the evidence and issues in the case, the judges in the Court of Appeal were dependent for their understanding of the possible relevance of the undisclosed material on transcripts of the Crown Court hearings and on the account of the issues given to them by prosecuting counsel. In addition, the first-instance judge would have been in a position to monitor the need for disclosure throughout the trial, assessing the importance of the undisclosed evidence at a stage when new issues were emerging, when it might have been possible through cross-examination seriously to undermine the credibility of key witnesses and when the defence case was still open to take a number of different directions or emphases. In contrast, the Court of Appeal was obliged to carry out its appraisal ex post facto and may even, to a certain extent, have unconsciously been influenced by the jury's verdict of guilty into underestimating the significance of the undisclosed evidence.