In Cleve v Germany, the European Court of Human Rights has elaborated on the scope of the presumption of innocence. It clarified that article 6 para 2 does not only apply to the operative part of a judgment – to the decision whether or not the defendant is found guilty – but also to its reasoning.
The applicant was the father of a daughter. After he had split with his wife, his former spouse laid information with the police that the applicant had sexually abused his daughter immediately. The daughter was questioned by police and a psychological expert was commissioned to assess the credibility of her statements.
The applicant was charged with sexual abuse of children and sexual abuse of persons entrusted to him for upbringing. After five hearings, the Regional Court Muenster acquitted him of all charges. In the reasoning, the Court pointed out that the applicant had denied the charges and had only been incriminated by his daughter. However, the Court had not found her testimony credible to a degree sufficient to justify a conviction. When outlining the reasons leading it to this conclusion, the Regional Court Muenster stated:
“… To sum up, the Chamber does not discern any signs of suggestive influence.
Therefore, the Chamber assumes, in sum, that the core events described by the witness have a factual basis, that is, that the accused actually carried out sexual assaults on his daughter in his car. Nevertheless, the acts could not be substantiated, in terms of either their intensity or their time frame, in a manner that would suffice to secure a conviction. The inconsistencies in the witness’s testimony were so marked that it was impossible to establish precise facts.”
The judgment became final. The applicant filed a constitutional complaint to the Federal Court of Constitution in which he claimed that the reasoning of the judgment violated the presumption of innocence, because it stated that he had carried out sexual assaults on his daughter. The Constitutional Court declared the complaint inadmissible and the applicant lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights.
The Court examined whether the reasoning of the judgement constituted a breach of the presumption of innocence entrenched in article 6 para 2 ECHR, which reads as follows:
‘Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.’
The German Government argued that the presumption of innocence did not apply to the reasoning of a judgment. It contended that article 6 para 2 only required that a defendant be acquitted if not proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt – which was exactly what the German court had done. The presumption of innocence did not impose any boundaries on a municipal court when providing reasons for the acquitting judgment.
The European Court of Human Rights rejected this argument. It pointed out that article 6 para 2 generally prohibited all agents of the state to treat someone as guilty before being convicted. While this became relevant before the judgment in most cases, there was no reason to exempt the judgment as such. Therefore, the presumption of innocence applied in principle to the reasoning of a judgment.
The Court stated that it hinged on the language employed in a given case whether the reasoning of a judgment violated the presumption of innocence. It conceded that a court had the right to address remaining suspicions or express doubts in the reasoning of a judgment. However, it was not allowed to state that a defendant, who was acquitted, had committed a criminal offence. The German court had done exactly that. It had stated that the applicant had sexually assaulted his daughter. Therefore it found that the presumption of innocence had been violated.
The European Court of Human Rights pointed to the possible repercussions of this statement, for example for proceedings regarding legal custody or civil actions for compensations.
The German version of this post can be found here