The applicant, Mr. Helmers, instituted a private prosecution for defamation in connection with statements contained in a report issued during selection procedure for an academic post. After a public hearing the Court of first instance dismissed the allegations. In his appeal Mr. Helmers contested the factual accuracy of the lower court’s conclusions and requested an oral hearing before the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal upheld the judgment without an oral hearing.
Mr. Helmers alleged breach of Article 6 of the Convention as a result of the Court of Appeal’s decision not to hold a public hearing.
The Court stated that even where a court of appeal has jurisdiction to review the case both as to the facts and as to the law. Article 6 does not always require a public hearing irrespective of the nature of the issues to be decided. The publicity requirement is one of the means whereby confidence in the courts is maintained. However, there are other considerations, including the right to trial within a reasonable time and the related need for expeditious handling of the courts’ case-load, which must be taken into account in determining the necessity of a public hearing at stages in the proceedings subsequent to the trial at first instance.
The Court observed that the applicant’s appeal raised serious questions about the facts of the case and interpretation of law which were relevant for determination of the defendant’s guilt or innocence. Taking into account the nature of the issues raised and seriousness of what was at stake for the applicant, namely his professional reputation and career; the Court found that these issues could not be determined without direct assessment of evidence in an oral hearing. Since there were no special features justifying the absence of an oral hearing the Court found a violation of the applicant’s right to a fair trial.