Following a stroke, the applicant had a disability which affected communication and mental functioning, and caused fatigue. A Crown Court dismissed his appeal against a criminal conviction. In the High Court, he argued successfully that the Crown Court’s dismissal of his appeal should be set aside, because the Crown Court had not given him a fair hearing. The High Court stressed that the Equal Treatment Bench Book now gives important advice which any judge dealing with disabled people should take into account.
The applicant had been convicted of a criminal offence by the magistrates court. The Crown Court then dismissed his appeal against the conviction. This was an application for ‘judicial review’ in relation to the dismissal of the appeal.
He argued that the hearing of his appeal in the Crown Court was “unfair to say the least”. He was suffering from the after effects of a stroke which had left him with reduced mental capacity. That had been exacerbated by a number of assaults in which he had been hit on the head and back of neck.
He had attended the court at 10am but was required to wait almost 6 hours for the case to start. He was, he said, too tired and unwell to handle the case properly, and because of the time restriction his case was rushed through. He had been told that the judge insisted the case would finish that day, even if the court had to sit until 7pm.
The applicant’s wife gave evidence that the judge had been pushing things along, to try and finish quickly. The applicant, she said, found it difficult to assimilate his thoughts into brief, concise, clear questions, and as a layman did not necessarily phrase his questions correctly. The judge had been irritated, making comments such as “stick to the point” These kind of comments, she said, only served to make him more anxious, stressed and frustrated. Tiredness played a huge part and his speech became slurred.
Held by the High Court: the claim succeeded. The plaintiff did not have a fair hearing in the Crown Court. The appeal could be re-heard by a differently composed court.
The judge in the Crown Court had been totally insensitive to the applicant’s health and medical circumstances.
One issue was that due to a misunderstanding the applicant had not been able to make a closing speech spelling out points of law he wanted to make.
The High Court commented that at the time the Crown Court did not have the benefit of the Equal Treatment Bench Book: see Appeaing in Court>Equal Treatment Bench Book. The Bench Book advised, for example, of possible issues of keeping a disabled person waiting too long, that the person may need more time, that the stress of coming to court may exacerbate symptoms, and of the danger of fatigue. The Bench Book also spoke specifically about how people who have had a stroke can sometimes have a great problem communicating (speaking and/or understanding), that stress and fatigue can make symptoms worse, and frequent short breaks should be taken.
The High Court continued
“…I wish to stress in this judgment that this advice [ie. in the Equal Treatment Bench Book] is important advice which every judge and every justice of the peace is under a duty to take into account when hearing a case involving people with one disability or another”
Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights (fair trial) underlined the importance of fairness in court procedure. That this involved a criminal conviction made it, if possible, even more important that proceedings should not only be fair but also be seen to be fair.
Morison J added that the appearance of fairness was almost as important as fairness itself. It was most unfortunate that the applicant here was left with a feeling that he had not been treated fairly by the court who was hearing an important matter from his perspective.
See Appearing in court.