European Court of Human Rights
1 October 1982

Facts

The applicant, Mr. Piersack, was accused of murder. Mr. Van de Walle was a senior deputy of a prosecutor at that time. Although he was not directly in charge of the case, he handled communication with the court on the case. Couple of years later when the trial in Mr. Piersack’s case took place, the court trying it was presided over by Mr. Van de Walle who had become a judge. Mr. Piersack was convicted for murder.

Complaint

Mr. Piersack claimed that the court by which he was convicted was not an "independent tribunal", violating his rights to fair trial.

Court's ruling

The Court stated that impartiality normally denotes absence of prejudice or bias. In this context there is a distinction between a subjective approach, that is trying to ascertain the personal conviction of a given judge in a given case, and an objective approach, that is determining whether he offered guarantees sufficient to exclude any legitimate doubt in this respect. With regard to the objective even appearances may be of a certain importance. Any judge in respect of whom there is a legitimate reason to fear a lack of impartiality must withdraw, because the confidence which the courts must inspire in the public in a democratic society is at stake. 

In the case at hand, the Court noted that Mr. Van de Walle was not leading the investigation at any point, however he was the hierarchical supervisor of the deputies in charge of the file. In this capacity he was entitled to revise any written submissions to the court, giving advice on the approach in the case as well as points of law. This in the Court’s view was sufficient to find that the impartiality of the "tribunal" which had to determine the merits of the charge could appear open to doubt. Therefore there was a violation of Mr. Piersack’s right to a fair trial.

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