The European Court of Human Rights has today found that two trials for murder which took some 9 years to conclude violated fair trial rights.
Charles Bernard O’Neill and William Hugh Lauchlan are currently in prison in Scotland. In 1998, they were locked up for various sexual offences. They were also interrogated about the disappearance and suspected murder of a woman, A.M., with whom they had shared a flat.
In 2005, they were charged with A.M.’s murder, but no prosecution was initially brought due to concerns about insufficient evidence. By September 2008, new evidence came to light which led the prosecution authorities to believe there was a better chance of getting a conviction against O’Neill and Lauchlan.
O’Neill and Lauchlan’s trials took place in 2010, and ended in their conviction for murder. They put in various appeals, including relating to the time-lapse in deciding their case. Their appeals were dismissed by the UK courts in March 2014 (O’Neill) and June 2014 (Lauchlan).
This is a Scottish case, governed by Scottish laws on length of legal proceedings. Under the Scotland Act 1998, the Scottish Executive must not act in a manner incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
O’Neill and Lauchlan applied to the European Court of Human Rights. Relying on the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time (contained in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights), O’Neill and Lauchlan argued that the overall length of the criminal case against them was excessive.
What did the European Court of Human Rights decide?
The right to a fair trial requires a fair hearing “within a reasonable time”. Generally speaking, a justice system governed by the rule of law should not allow persons suspected of criminal offences to be kept in a prolonged state of uncertainty. People should not have “the threat of prosecution hanging over them” for an unjustifiably long period.
From the charges in April 2005, to the conclusion of proceedings in 2014, the criminal proceedings lasted some 9 years. Such a long duration required convincing justification by the State and the Court considered whether domestic authorities exercised the necessary care when conducting the proceedings.
The Court found that certain stages of the proceedings were very long. Notably, the men had to wait almost four years for their appeals to be finally determined. They had rights to appeal under domestic law, and the Court said they could not be blamed for making use of them.
The Court carefully considered many difficulties faced by the police and prosecuting authorities in bringing the case to trial, but concluded that overall the length of the proceedings was excessive and failed to meet the reasonable-time requirement. The right to a fair trial had been violated.
The men were not awarded any financial compensation but were granted a small sum for legal costs.