European Court of Human Rights - case of Piersack v. Belgium (1982) (excerpts)

European Court of Human Rights - case of Piersack v. Belgium (1982) (excerpts)


30. Whilst impartiality normally denotes absence of prejudice or bias, its existence or otherwise can, notably under Article 6 § 1 (art. 6-1) of the Convention, be tested in various ways. A distinction can be drawn in this context between a subjective approach, that is endeavouring to ascertain the personal conviction of a given judge in a given case, and an objective approach, that is determining whether he offered guarantees sufficient to exclude any legitimate doubt in this respect.

(a) As regards the first approach, the Court notes that the applicant is pleased to pay tribute to Mr. Van de Walle’s personal impartiality; it does not itself have any cause for doubt on this score and indeed personal impartiality is to be presumed until there is proof to the contrary (see the Le Compte, Van Leuven and De Meyere judgment of 23 June 1981, Series A no. 43, p. 25, § 58).

However, it is not possible to confine oneself to a purely subjective test. In this area, even appearances may be of a certain importance (see the Delcourt judgment of 17 January 1970, Series A no. 11, p. 17, § 31). As the Belgian Court of Cassation observed in its judgment of 21 February 1979 (see paragraph 17 above), any judge in respect of whom there is a legitimate reason to fear a lack of impartiality must withdraw. What is at stake is the confidence which the courts must inspire in the public in a democratic society.

(b) It would be going too far to the opposite extreme to maintain that former judicial officers in the public prosecutor’s department were unable to sit on the bench in every case that had been examined initially by that department, even though they had never had to deal with the case themselves. So radical a solution, based on an inflexible and formalistic conception of the unity and indivisibility of the public prosecutor’s department, would erect a virtually impenetrable barrier between that department and the bench. It would lead to an upheaval in the judicial system of several Contracting States where transfers from one of those offices to the other are a frequent occurrence. Above all, the mere fact that a judge was once a member of the public prosecutor’s department is not a reason for fearing that he lacks impartiality; the Court concurs with the Government on this point.

(c) The Belgian Court of Cassation, which took Article 6 § 1 (art. 6-1) into consideration of its own motion, adopted in this case a criterion based on the functions exercised, namely whether the judge had previously intervened "in the case in or on the occasion of the exercise of ... functions as a judicial officer in the public prosecutor’s department". It dismissed Mr. Piersack’s appeal on points of law because the documents before it did not, in its view, show that there had been any such intervention on the part of Mr. Van de Walle in the capacity of senior deputy to the Brussels procureur du Roi, even in some form other than the adoption of a personal standpoint or the taking of a specific step in the process of prosecution or investigation (see paragraph 17 above).

(d) Even when clarified in the manner just mentioned, a criterion of this kind does not fully meet the requirements of Article 6 § 1 (art. 6-1). In order that the courts may inspire in the public the confidence which is indispensable, account must also be taken of questions of internal organisation. If an individual, after holding in the public prosecutor’s department an office whose nature is such that he may have to deal with a given matter in the course of his duties, subsequently sits in the same case as a judge, the public are entitled to fear that he does not offer sufficient guarantees of impartiality.


31.  This was what occurred in the present case. In November 1978, Mr. Van de Walle presided over the Brabant Assize Court before which the Indictments Chamber of the Brussels Court of Appeal had remitted the applicant for trial. In that capacity, he enjoyed during the hearings and the deliberations extensive powers to which, moreover, he was led to have recourse, for example the discretionary power conferred by Article 268 of the Judicial Code and the power of deciding, with the other judges, on the guilt of the accused should the jury arrive at a verdict of guilty by no more than a simple majority (see paragraphs 13-14 and 20-21 above).

Yet previously and until November 1977, Mr. Van de Walle had been the head of section B of the Brussels public prosecutor’s department, which was responsible for the prosecution instituted against Mr. Piersack. As the hierarchical superior of the deputies in charge of the file, Mrs. del Carril and then Mr. De Nauw, he had been entitled to revise any written submissions by them to the courts, to discuss with them the approach to be adopted in the case and to give them advice on points of law (see paragraph 19 above). Besides, the information obtained by the Commission and the Court (see paragraphs 9-11 above) tends to confirm that Mr. Van de Walle did in fact play a certain part in the proceedings.

Whether or not Mr. Piersack was, as the Government believe, unaware of all these facts at the relevant time is of little moment. Neither is it necessary to endeavour to gauge the precise extent of the role played by Mr. Van de Walle, by undertaking further enquiries in order to ascertain, for example, whether or not he received the covering note of 4 February 1977 himself and whether or not he discussed this particular case with Mrs. del Carril and Mr. De Nauw. It is sufficient to find that the impartiality of the "tribunal" which had to determine the merits (in the French text: "bien-fondé") of the charge was capable of appearing open to doubt.