The Omagh bombing is seen as the single worst incident of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. One 500 lb bomb killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins.
There was no criminal prosecution for those responsible but there was a civil action brought against some of the alleged perpetrators by many of the families that suffered as a result of the bomb.
Two of the alleged perpetrators were Mr McKevitt and Mr Campbell. In a civil action for compensation, they were ordered to pay substantial damages to the victims of the attack. But they claimed that elements of the civil action breached their right to a fair trial.
The right to a fair trial is protected under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which takes effect in UK law through the Human Rights Act. Mr McKevitt and Mr Campbell said their trial had been unfair, and therefore a breach of Article 6 ECHR, for two reasons.
First, the standard of proof should have been higher. Usually, for civil cases the standard of proof is ‘the balance of probabilities’. This means the judge must be convinced that it is more than 50% likely that the alleged facts occurred. For criminal cases the standard is higher: ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. This means the jury must be really quite sure (although not necessarily 100% certain) that the alleged facts occurred. This was a civil case but, owing to the severity of the allegations, Mr McKevitt and Mr Campbell said the criminal standard of proof should have been applied.
Second, evidence from an FBI agent had been used in the trial, but he was not available for questioning. The men said that use of this evidence was also unfair.
The European Court of Human Rights dismissed both complaints. In relation to the first, the Court noted that it was solely a civil case for compensation, with no criminal charge, and so the national court’s application of the ‘balance of probabilities’ as the correct standard of proof could not be questioned.
In relation to the second complaint, although the FBI agent had not been available for questioning at the trial, the judge had put in place appropriate safeguards. He gave the defendants the opportunity to counteract the agent’s evidence with their own and been careful when using the agent’s evidence to make his judgment.
In light of this, the national court’s findings could not be said to have been arbitrary or unreasonable. The European Court of Human Rights found no evidence that the trial had been unfair, and therefore no breach of Mr McKevitt and Mr Campbell’s Article 6 rights.
For more information:
- Take a look at our infographic poster on the right to a fair trial.
- Read our explainer: why the right to a fair trial is important for everyone.
- Look at our explainer on ‘secret trials’.