Information Note on the Court’s case-law No. 159
Legillon v. France - 53406/10
Judgment 10.1.2013 [Section V]
Assize court judgment containing statement of reasons for jury’s guilty verdict: violation; no violation
[This summary also covers the judgment in the case of Agnelet v. France, no. 61198/08, 10 January 2013]
Facts - In Agnelet, the applicant was sentenced in 2007 by the Assize Court to twenty years’ imprisonment for murder. He was the lover and lawyer of the murdered woman. Earlier proceedings against him had been discontinued or had led to an acquittal.
The applicant in Legillon was sentenced by the Assize Court of Appeal to fifteen years’ imprisonment for rape and sexual assault of minors under the age of fifteen within his immediate family.
The applicants complained of the lack of reasons given in the assize court judgments. They lodged appeals with the Court of Cassation, which were dismissed on the grounds that the requirements of Article 6 of the European Convention had been satisfied.
Law - Article 6 § 1: The absence of reasons in a judgment, owing to the fact that the applicant’s guilt was determined by a lay jury, was not in itself contrary to the Convention. The specific features of the procedure before the assize courts with the participation of a lay jury had to be taken into account. It emerged from the Grand Chamber judgment in Taxquet v. Belgium that it should be clear from the indictment, together with the questions put to the jury, which pieces of evidence and factual circumstances among all those examined in the course of the trial the jurors had ultimately based their answers to the questions on, and that the questions themselves had to be precise and geared to the individual concerned.
In Agnelet, the applicant had been the only defendant and the case had been very complex. The indictment decision had been limited in scope because it had preceded the debates, which formed the crux of the proceedings. As to the factual information included in the indictment and its usefulness in understanding the guilty verdict against the applicant, it had of necessity left a number of areas of uncertainty: as the murder had not been positively established, the explanation for the victim’s disappearance had inevitably been based on hypothesis. As to the questions, they had been all the more important since, when deliberating, the judges and jury had not had access to the case file and had based their decision solely on the elements examined during the adversarial proceedings, albeit with the addition, in this case, of the decision indicting the accused. Furthermore, there had been a great deal at stake as the applicant had been sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment after earlier proceedings had been discontinued or had led to his acquittal. The subsidiary questions had been found to be devoid of purpose, so that only two questions had been put to the jury: the first was whether the applicant had intentionally murdered the victim and the second, if so, whether the murder had been premeditated. Considering the considerable complexity of the case, those questions had been succinctly worded and made no allusion to the specific circumstances. They had not referred to “any precise and specific circumstances that could have enabled the applicant to understand why he [had been] found guilty”. It was true that the public prosecutor had appealed, thus enabling the first-instance judgment to be reviewed. However, besides the fact that this judgment had not been accompanied by reasons either, the appeal had resulted in the formation of a new assize-court bench, made up of different judges, whose task was to re-examine the case file and reassess the factual and legal issues in the course of fresh hearings. It followed that the applicant had been unable to retrieve any pertinent information from the first-instance proceedings as to why he had been convicted on appeal by a different jury and different judges, especially since he had initially been acquitted. Thus, the applicant had not had sufficient guarantees to enable him to understand why he had been found guilty.
Conclusion: violation (unanimously).
Article 41: no claim made in respect of damage.
In Legillon, the applicant had been the sole defendant and the offences of which he was accused, despite their seriousness, had not been complex. The indictment decision that had preceded the hearings had been particularly detailed and the charges had then been debated for three days. The reclassification of the offences after the order committing the applicant for trial and before the questions to the jury emphasised that the latter’s decision was not to be confused with the indictment decision. This development, arising out of the debate, had necessarily allowed the accused to understand part of the jury’s reasoning. Twelve questions had been asked, forming a clear whole which left no ambiguity as to the charges against the applicant. Furthermore, specific questions concerning the aggravating circumstances of the father-daughter relationship and the age of the victims had enabled the jury to weigh precisely the applicant’s individual criminal responsibility. In sum, the applicant had been given sufficient guarantees to enable him to understand the guilty verdict against him.
Lastly, a reform had been put in place since the time of the events, following the enactment of legislation in August 2011 introducing a new provision (Article 365-1) into the Code of Criminal Procedure. This provided for the reasons for the assize court judgment to be set out in a “statement of reasons form” appended to the list of questions. In the event of a conviction, the reasons had to be based on those facts examined in the course of the deliberations which had convinced the assize court in respect of each of the charges brought against the accused. This reform thus appeared, on the face of it, to significantly strengthen the guarantees against arbitrariness and to help the accused understand the court’s decision, as required by Article 6 § 1 of the Convention.
Conclusion: no violation (unanimously).
(See Taxquet v. Belgium [GC], no. 926/05, 16 November 2010, Information Note no. 135)
© Council of Europe/European Court of Human Rights
This summary by the Registry does not bind the Court.
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