R v Horncastle & Others (2009) UKSC 14 was a significant decision by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom that dealt with the admissibility of hearsay evidence in criminal trials and its compatibility with the right to a fair trial as guaranteed by Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Background: Article 6 of the ECHR guarantees the right to a fair trial for individuals charged with criminal offences. Under Article 6(3)(d), this right includes the right to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. The case centred around whether convictions could be based solely or to a decisive extent on hearsay evidence, which refers to statements made by witnesses who are not present in court.
European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) Precedent: Prior to the Horncastle case, the ECtHR had ruled in Al-Khawaja v United Kingdom that relying solely or decisively on hearsay evidence for convictions was a breach of Article 6 of the ECHR.
Facts: In the Horncastle case, several appellants had been convicted of various criminal offenses primarily based on hearsay evidence. Some of the witnesses who provided this evidence were unavailable to testify due to reasons such as death or fear.
Criminal Justice Act 2003: The admissibility of hearsay evidence in the cases was based on the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which allows for certain exceptions to the general presumption against hearsay evidence in criminal trials and provides safeguards for admission of hearsay evidence.
Court of Appeal decision: The Court of Appeal upheld the convictions of the appellants, supporting the statutory regime on the admission of hearsay evidence in line with the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The Court did not follow the sole or decisive rule set by the ECtHR.
Supreme Court decision: The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, affirmed the Court of Appeal's judgment and dismissed the appeals. The Court held that it was not bound by ECtHR precedent and had the discretion to depart from it in certain circumstances.
Reasoning: The Supreme Court's reasoning was based on several factors. The Court pointed out that UK courts do not always have to follow the ECtHR precedent because the Human Right Act 1998, which incorporates the ECHR into domestic law, only requires the courts to take into account, rather than follow, any judgment, decision, declaration or advisory opinion of the ECtHR. The Court emphasised the strengths of the common law tradition in the UK regarding criminal evidence and the safeguards it provided against untested hearsay evidence. The Court also praised the Criminal Justice Act 2003 as a well-crafted code for admitting hearsay evidence with safeguards. The Court noted that applying the sole or decisive rule would create practical difficulties in the UK's criminal justice system, as it was rare for UK law to admit evidence falling within this rule. The Court also found the sole or decisive rule paradoxical, as it allowed weak hearsay evidence to be admitted while excluding stronger, more incriminating evidence. This approach was seen as counterintuitive to the purpose of a fair trial.
In summary, the Horncastle case was a significant decision that asserted the UK Supreme Court's authority to depart from ECtHR precedent in certain circumstances. It upheld the admissibility of hearsay evidence in accordance with the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, rejecting the "sole or decisive" rule established by the ECtHR in previous cases. The decision was based on a belief that UK law provided adequate safeguards to protect the rights of the accused in criminal trials.
You can learn more about this topic with our Evidence notes.