Thursday 15 January 2009

(Belgian) Jury Trial System Counter to ECHR

The Court's judgment on Tuesday in the case of Taxquet v. Belgium has led to a lot of debate in that country. The applicant in the case was one of the convicted persons in the large trial in the highly publicised case concerning the murder on politician André Cools. The affair itself already caused a large scandal in Belgium, but now even its aftermath is the cause of uproar. That is because the European Court held in this case that the verdict on the national level, issued on the basis of trial by jury (a system used in Belgium for the more severe crimes), was not sufficiently motivated and thus ran counter to Article 6 ECHR (right to a fair trial). The Court considered that the motivation in a criminal judgment both protected the accused and also formed a bulwark against arbitrariness. In the Belgium system (and several others) a jury can only answer the questions posed to it by yes or no or guilty or not guilty. Thus, a lot depends on the amount and especially the precision of the questions. In this particular case, the questions were too general and too vague (and the same as for several of the other accused persons). The Court added that in a system of trial by the "people" it is especially important to explain to public opinion on what reasoning a decision was reached.

Hours after the Strasbourg judgment, a discussion erupted in Belgium on what should happen now. The Government acknowledges that the trial by jury system will have to be reformed to comply, but also thinks it will need some time. Therefore, it has announced that it will ask the Court to review the case in a Grand Chamber. Meanwhile, at least one trial by jury was put on hold by a local judge (but resumed the next day) and lawyers of suspects in other cases have called for similar measures to be taken. For reports in the Flemish press, click here and here. For reports in the Walloon press, click here and here. One suggested option is that the trial judge will attend the jury's deliberations to help draft a judgment which does sufficiently motivate. That will of course have to happen without influencing the jury - a challenge in itself! Meanwhile, Taxquet will remain imprisoned. The Court did award 4000 euros to be paid by Belgium for non-pecuniary damage and also indicated that the most appropriate form of redress would be a retrial or re-opening of the case.