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Domý arrow »lŠnky arrow Issue 1 - The British Constitution arrow 12: Linda KrŠkorovŠ - No Man a Judge in His Own Case
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No Man a Judge in His Own Cause

The Problem of Judicial Impartiality and Natural Justice in English Law

 

Linda Krákorová

 

 

An extraordinary thing happened recently. The House of Lords did an unprecedented thing. It put aside its own judgement. And it did so in relation to a case that had caught the attention of the whole legal world - Re Pinochet (1998). The connection between one of the judges, Lord Hoffmann and one of the parties to the case, Amnesty International provided grounds for an appeal against the earlier judgement. To the enormous embarrassment of the English legal establishment in general and of the House of Lords in particular, in Re Pinochet (1998) their Lordships unanimously accepted the arguments of Pinochet's lawyers and declared the judgement against him to be "unsafe". Thus the decision of November 1998 to extradite Senator Pinochet was quashed for reasons of the existence of the appearance of bias. As presiding judge Lord Browne-Wilkinson expressed it: "…Senator Pinochet does not allege that Lord Hoffmann was in fact biased. The contention is that there was a real danger or reasonable apprehension or suspicion that Lord Hoffmann might have been biased,…there is an appearance of bias not actual bias … once it is shown that the judge is himself a party to the cause,… he is disqualified without any investigation into whether there was a likelihood or suspicion of bias. The mere fact of his interest is sufficient to disqualify him unless he has made sufficient disclosure." This judgement showed obedience to the rules of natural justice and revived Dimes v Grand Junction Canal (1852), the leading case on this issue.

 

Natural Justice and English Law

 

The concept of natural justice comprises essentially unwritten rules of common law. What they basically express is the right of those affected by decision makers (especially judges) to be dealt with in a fair manner. In other words, the proceedings must be conducted in a way which ensures that those affected can truly obtain justice, and that they are given a reasonable chance to put their side of the case and that the trial is conducted fairly, free from any outside interference.

 

There are two basic principles of natural justice: Nemo judex in sua causa (no man a judge in his own cause) and Audi alteram partem. The latter, the right to a fair hearing, might be determined by all sorts of requirements: the right to an oral hearing, the right to legal representation at a hearing, the right to question witnesses, the right to be given an opportunity to respond to the evidence, etc.

 

The rule against bias, which the first of these two principles deals with, states that a judge should decline to hear a case on two specific occasions. The first is when there is a danger of financial bias, i.e., when a judge has a direct pecuniary or proprietary interest in the matter in question (however, a financial interest in a case which does not go beyond the financial interest of any citizen does not disqualify judges from sitting). The other occasion when a judge might be accused of personal bias include when there exists some personal hostility, friendship, a family relationship or acquaintanceship on the side of the judge with a party or with a witness in the case, as well as bias by virtue of the judge's views on the race, sex, politics, background, association and opinions. Strictly speaking, none of these expressly break the rule no man a judge in his own cause, for the judge does not himself have a direct interest in the case. However, his bias could clearly result in his favouring one of the parties, and so injure the right of the other party to obtain a fair trial. It would therefore be a violation of natural justice.

 

The rule against bias can be traced back to 1609, to Dr Bonham's Case. Chief Justice Coke held that members of a board which determined the level of physicians' fines could not both impose and receive the fines. Lord Coke's statement was the first step towards clearly articulating the rule, however, it was not until the famous case of Dimes v Grand Junction Canal (1852) that the rule was articulated in its modern form.

 

The Leading Case - Dimes v Grand Junction Canal (1852)

 

The Dimes case centred on the fact that one of the judges involved, Lord Cottenham, who in fact occupied the post of the highest judge, that of Lord Chancellor, was also a shareholder in a company which was one of the parties to the case. The company had bought some land in order to construct a canal. Mr Dimes, who had his interests in the same land, had initially succeeded in recovering the property by means of ejectment. To Dimes' detriment, however, the corporation had finally had their title confirmed in a decree issued by the late Lord Chancellor - Lord Cottenham. Dimes appealed to the House of Lords claiming that Lord Cottenham's decision should be voided because of the links existing between him and the company. He claimed that the Lord Chancellor had decided this case in his own interest and this was contrary to the principle of natural justice - no man a judge in his own cause.

 

"Was this a case in which the order and decree of the Lord Chancellor were void on account of his interest, and of his having decided in his own cause?" This is how Lord St. Leonards - the Lord Chancellor then - introduced the crucial point of Dimes' objections when the appeal reached the House of Lords. Another of his learned colleagues, Lord Campbell, stated the following: "No one can suppose that Lord Cottenham could be…influenced by the interest that he had in his concern, but…it is of the first importance that the maxim that no man is to be a judge in his own cause should be held sacred." He emphasized that it did not matter whether the existence of financial interest resulted in actual bias. The mere existence of this kind of interest provided grounds for likelihood or appearance of bias which was sufficient to disqualify a judge.

 

Judicial Bias after Dimes

 

Cases following Dimes developed the rule further. In R v Sussex Justices, ex parte McCarthy (1924) the defendant's conviction was invalidated on the basis of possibility of bias. The appeal judge, Chief Justice Heward, placed special emphasis on the need for the appearance of a fair trial. As he famously and succinctly stated: "It is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done." Thus it is not necessary to show that actual bias on the part of the judge actually existed, in order to have a judgement set aside as being "unsafe". The merest appearance or possibility of bias would suffice.

 

In Metropolitan Properties Ltd. v Lannon (1969) a property company challenged the validity of a decision given by an administrative body regulating tenants' rents on the grounds that one of the members of the body, a solicitor called Lannon, had given professional legal advice to tenants in dispute with one of the company's business associates. Metropolitan therefore claimed that Lannon "could not give an unbiased hearing" and the Court of Appeal confirmed their point of view. In Lord Denning's words: "Justice must be rooted in confidence: and confidence is destroyed when right-minded people go away thinking: 'The judge was biased.' … No man can be an advocate for or against party in one proceeding, and at the same time sit as a judge of that party in another proceeding." Twenty-nine years later, bias turned out to be a red hot issue once more in Re Pinochet (1998). When discussing Lord Hoffmann's bias, Lord Browne-Wilkinson based his arguments heavily on Dimes once more.

 

Natural Justice and the Judges

 

There remains one very interesting aspect of these cases to mention. Although both Dimes and Re Pinochet were cases dealing with the most senior judges and the highest courts in the land, the lack of any personal criticism directed by the courts against the judges themselves is quite astonishing. Surely, when applying the rules of natural justice and setting the judgements aside for appearance of bias, the courts should not have stopped there but should have had both judges removed from office? Both had, after all, acted extremely foolishly (or perhaps worse). They had also threatened the chance of the parties obtaining a fair trial and deserved to be punished. However, the courts did not impose any sanctions on them, they did not even criticise their conduct. No matter how fierce the public criticism (in Lord Hoffmann's case, especially). All that happened was that their decision was put aside on appeal but the judges saved their posts. There are clearly limits to natural justice in English Law.

 

Linda Krákorová

Linda Krákorová is a fourth-year student at Charles University Law Faculty in Prague.

 
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