EIT: Korona-altistuneen hovioikeustuomarin osallistuminen istuntoon videon välityksin ei vaarantanut oikeudenmukaista oikeudenkäyntiä15.12.2023 | Oikeusuutiset
European Court of Human Rights
Application no. 15736/22
Alppi v. Finland
On 27 June 2019 the applicant was convicted by the Pirkanmaa District Court (käräjäoikeus, tingsrätten) of two murders and certain other offences, including aggravated assault. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and ordered to pay damages to the victims’ next of kin.
4. The applicant appealed against that ruling. The appeal proceedings were then conducted in the Turku Court of Appeal (hovioikeus, hovrätten), the bench of which was composed of three judges, in two stages.
5. First, on 15 January 2020, having taken and examined all the evidence at a hearing, the Court of Appeal adopted a judgment in which the applicant was found guilty as charged. He was then subjected to a forensic medical examination to establish his mental capacity at the time when the offences had been committed.
6. Having obtained the results of the forensic medical examination, according to which the applicant had acted without any reduction in his mental capacity that might have been relevant to his sentencing, the Court of Appeal on 19 October 2020 held a further hearing on the issues pertaining to sentencing. The applicant and his lawyer attended the hearing in person. At the time of that second hearing, however, one of the three judges had to undergo a COVID-19-related quarantine, and a video link was therefore used to connect the persons physically present in the courtroom with the quarantined judge.
7. On 15 December 2020 the Court of Appeal gave its final judgment. The Court of Appeal reclassified the assault as non-aggravated and altered the award of damages in respect of one of the next of kin. In other respects, the District Court’s judgment was upheld, and the applicant’s sentence of life imprisonment was confirmed, this being effectively the mandatory sentence for murder under Finnish law.
8. The applicant appealed against the Court of Appeal’s judgment to the Supreme Court, arguing that there had been a procedural error because there had been no provision of domestic law that allowed a judge to participate in a hearing via video link.
9. On 22 December 2021 the Supreme Court (korkein oikeus, högsta domstolen) dismissed the appeal. The Supreme Court noted that the matter did not concern a judge who had been absent, but rather the manner in which he had been present. The error was therefore not a question of the legality of the composition of the Court of Appeal. However, since there was no provision of domestic law governing the participation of a judge via video link, the Supreme Court considered that the matter had to be viewed as a procedural error nonetheless and that, consequently, a broader examination had to be carried out in order to determine whether fair-trial requirements would demand that the case be remitted to the Court of Appeal for a rehearing.
10. In carrying out that examination, the Supreme Court first noted that the error under domestic procedural law had violated the immediacy of the trial and was accordingly serious. In assessing what impact the procedural error had had on the overall fairness of the trial the Supreme Court referred to another one of its judgments – given on the same day – in which it had found that the use of video link had not been acceptable because, inter alia, there had not been sufficiently weighty reasons for it. In that case the Supreme Court had quashed a decision of the Court of Appeal and remitted the case to it as it had considered that the requirements of a fair trial had not been met.
11. However, in the applicant’s case, the Supreme Court observed that the reason for the use of video link had been that one of the judges had had to undergo a COVID-19-related quarantine. The Supreme Court stated that the COVID-19 pandemic had provided weighty reasons for using a video link and in the circumstances, under domestic law, the Court of Appeal would have had a quorum even if it had continued handling the case with only two members.
12. The Supreme Court further noted that the evidence had been presented in the presence of all three judges during the first part of the hearing and that the applicant had already been convicted by the judgment of 15 January 2020 (see paragraph 5 above) – the remaining matter for the second part of the hearing had largely been limited to points of law only relevant to sentencing (see paragraph 6 above).
13. Lastly, the Supreme Court considered that there was nothing concrete to suggest that the judge’s having participated by video link in the second part of the hearing and the deliberations thereafter had had any impact on the applicant’s defence rights. It concluded that although there had been a breach of rules of procedure, it had not in the circumstances had any impact on the quality of the hearing, on the decision-making or on the outcome. There were accordingly no grounds for quashing the Court of Appeal’s judgment. – – –
15. The applicant submitted that the use of videoconferencing without any legal basis had rendered his trial unfair and meant that the Court of Appeal had not been established by law in his case. – – –
21. In the instant case, the Supreme Court was of the view that the COVID-19 pandemic was a weighty and legitimate reason for the use of video link in the concrete circumstances of the applicant’s case and had not rendered his trial unfair. In reaching that conclusion, the Supreme Court thoroughly examined the overall fairness of the criminal proceedings. It noted in that connection that the applicant’s right to challenge or question any of the witnesses heard by the court in the presence of the judges who ultimately decided the case had not been violated, as all the evidence had been taken and examined at the first hearing (see paragraphs 5-6 and 12 above). The Supreme Court nonetheless pointed out that the principle of immediacy had necessarily suffered as a result of the use of video link (see paragraph 10 above).
22. The Court is satisfied that the use of video link served a legitimate aim, namely to reduce the spread of COVID-19. As to the requirement for due process, the Court finds it important that in the circumstances of the applicant’s case, even if the use of video link had an impact on the immediacy of the trial in technical terms, as accepted by the Supreme Court, the case was not one that could have given rise to concerns that the judges adjudicating the case had not themselves taken the important evidence (see for example, mutatis mutandis, Graviano v. Italy, no. 10075/02, §§ 39-40, 10 February 2005, and Škaro v. Croatia, no. 6962/13, §§ 22-31, 6 December 2016 (in both of which no violations of the Convention were found), and also Cutean v. Romania, no. 53150/12, §§ 60-73, 2 December 2014 (in which a violation of Article 6 § 1 was found)). In that context, the Court also bears in mind the fact that not every deficiency in respect of the principle of immediacy will in and of itself necessarily lead to the conclusion that the trial was overall unfair (see, for example, P.K. v. Finland (dec.), no. 37442/97, 9 July 2002).
23. Moreover, in the applicant’s case, the Court finds that importance must be attached to the fact that the second part of the hearing, where a video link was used, essentially related to more technical legal issues relevant to the sentencing in a situation where the applicant’s guilt had already been established (see paragraphs 5-6 and 12 above). Against that background, the Court does not find that the Supreme Court erred when finding that the proceedings overall appeared fair, notwithstanding that the use of video link had not been in keeping with domestic procedural rules (see paragraph 13 above). The Court takes note of the fact that in another case decided on the same day, the Supreme Court reached the conclusion, likewise following a concrete assessment of the circumstances, that the use of video link had violated the right to a fair trial (see paragraph 10 above).
24. In the light of the above, the Court considers that the application is manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 (a) of the Convention and must accordingly be rejected pursuant to Article 35 § 4.