ECtHR rules right to access solicitor not violated where overall fairness of criminal proceedings not prejudiced

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled that the right to a fair trial of Irish man, Barry Doyle, was not violated by restrictions in accessing a solicitor while he was being questioned by the Gardaí.

Mr Doyle was detained for questioning by the Gardaí in relation to the murder of rugby player Shane Geoghegan on the 9 of November 2008. He was interviewed by the Gardai many times and was granted access to a solicitor prior to his first interview and in-between interviews. However, as was the practice of the Gardaí at the time, he was not allowed to have a solicitor present with him in the interview room while the interview was being conducted.

During the 15th interview, Mr Doyle admitted to killing the victim. He was later convicted of murder and handed a life sentence in the Central Criminal Court, following the trial judge’s decision to include the recorded admission. Mr Doyle unsuccessfully appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court on a number of grounds, including challenging the admissibility of his confession on the basis that it had been under threat from the Gardaí and oppression resulting from the absence of his solicitor during interviews.

Following his unsuccessful appeal in the Supreme Court, Mr Doyle lodged a complaint to the ECtHR alleging that the State’s failure in ensuring that he had a solicitor present during his interview constituted a breach of his right to a fair trial under Article 6 (1) and the right to a defence through legal assistance of one’s own choosing under Article 6(3)(c) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ECtHR in its Chamber judgement reiterated that the right of an accused to be “effectively defended by a lawyer was one of the fundamental features of a fair trial guaranteed under article 6(3)(c) and confirmed in several of its judgements (Salduz v. Turkey; Beuze v Belgium).

The ECtHR followed a two-step approach in applying the principles under Article 6(1) and 6(3)(c) to the present case. Firstly, it considered whether the restriction on the applicant’s access to his solicitor was justified. Secondly, the Court examined the overall fairness of the proceedings.

In assessing whether the restricted access to a solicitor was justified, the ECtHR held that despite Mr Doyle having access to his solicitor prior to his first interview and at numerous occasions during the interviewing process, the practice of the Gardaí at the time of refusing solicitors from being present with an accused in the interview room was of a general nature, and there had been no assessment of the Mr Doyle’s particular circumstances. As such, the restriction was not justified by compelling reasons.

The ECtHR then went on to consider the second aspect of the case, looking at the overall fairness of the trial. It began by assessing the vulnerability of Mr Doyle at the time of the interviews. It held that applicant was not particularly vulnerable as he was an adult, a native English speaker and was mentally strong during the interview process, choosing when and when not to engage with the Gardaí.

The ECtHR was also satisfied with the assessment of the Irish courts and the procedural safeguards that were in place to ensure the applicant’s right to a fair trial, including his ability to challenge the admissibility of his confession at every stage of the proceedings and the use of video recording in the interview process, which was then provided to the judges and jury.

Although the majority (7 out 8 judges) of Chamber held that the Supreme Court had erred in deciding that the right of an accused to have access to a lawyer did not extend to having that lawyer physically present during police interview, it nonetheless concluded that overall fairness of the criminal proceedings had not been irretrievably prejudiced by the restriction. Thus, it was held that there had been no violation of Article 6(1) and 6(3)(c) of the Convention.

Click here for the decision in Doyle v Ireland.





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