The presumption of innocence
Today the UK Supreme Court (the court we used to call the House of Lords) has handed down its judgment in the case of Gale v SOCA  UKSC 49.
The judgment is on an obscure point of law and makes difficult, even tortuous, reading as the discussion roves over the applicability (or not) of Article 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights to proceedings under Part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and the interpretation of earlier decisions of the UK and European Courts. Could any other reading matter be more likely to cause the reader to lose the will to live?
But the underlying story is about the age old rule than a man is innocent until proven guilty, and a disagreement between the highest court in the UK and the highest court in Europe.
In a nutshell, Mr Gale is a man with no criminal convictions - but he is suspected of serious criminal conduct (drug trafficking, money laundering and tax evasion) across several countries. He was prosecuted in Portugal but acquitted and criminal proceedings were started against him in Spain but came to nothing.
SOCA wanted to take off Mr & Mrs Gale assets valued at about £2 million which it considered could be shown, on the balance of probabilities, to be derived from crime. Court proceedings were started in the UK in which SOCA was initially successful. An interim receiver was appointed to track down assets and collect information and he racked up fees in the region of £1 million doing that. SOCA wanted to add the receiver's fees to the sum to be 'recovered' from Mr & Mrs Gale's assets.
Not surprisingly Mr Gale objected to all this. He pointed not only to the presumption of innocence but to his actual acquittal in Portugal.
The European Court of Human Rights has held that "following a final acquittal, even the voicing of suspicions regarding an accused’s innocence is no longer admissible".
But in the UK Supreme Court Lord Phillips said today, "I see no reason in principle why confiscation should not be based on evidence that satisfies the civil standard, notwithstanding that it has proved insufficiently compelling to found a conviction on application of the criminal standard". Or to put it another way 'just because it cannot be proved that he did it, does not mean that he didn't do it'.
Ultimately in the case of Mr & Mrs Gale the Supreme Court found that the UK court's decision that it was satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the assets in question were 'recoverable property' was not in direct contradiction to the finding of the Portuguese court that Mr Gale was innocent of the offences with which he had been charged there. The evidence before the UK court covered matters more wide-ranging than simply the offences considered in the Portuguese court.
So it upheld a lower court's rulings that the assets in question were 'recoverable property' and that SOCA was also entitled to recover reasonable fees and expenses of the receiver.
Mr Gale is still an innocent man, but a considerably poorer one.
There is more about this in an article on my blog.