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Monday, March 15, 1999 Published at 12:14 GMT


Young suspects 'intimidated' by trial

There was intense public interest in the case from the start

The European Commission of Human Rights says the trial of the two young killers of Jamie Bulger was held in a "highly charged" atmosphere which led to an unfair judgment.

The commission ruled by 14 votes to five, that there was a violation of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights regarding the fairness of the trial of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.

[ image:  ]
Its decision contains a number of criticisms of the UK's procedures for dealing with juveniles accused of serious offences. The suspects, now aged 17, were 11 when they were tried.

The European Court judgment which will now follow could have major implications for the way such offences are tried in the future.

The commission report gives a stark description of the facts of the case before going on to explain where there were human rights breaches.

"The applicants, both British nationals born in 1982, abducted the young boy from a shopping precinct, battered him to death and left his body on a railway track.

[ image: Jon Venables]
Jon Venables
"After a public trial in an adult court in 1993 they were sentenced to be detained during Her Majesty's pleasure.

"The trial judge fixed their tariff (the compulsory part of their sentence) at eight years, subsequently increased to 15 years by the home secretary who had taken into consideration, among other things, `public concern' about the case.

"His decision was quashed by the domestic courts and no decision on the length of the tariff has been taken since."

'Wigs and gowns'

The report goes on to criticise the way the trial took place, with Venables and Thompson sitting in a raised dock, separated from their parents "with the formal panoply of the adult criminal trial involving judge and counsel in wigs and gowns".

[ image:  ]
It says the fact that this "formality and publicity" led to a "highly charged" atmosphere, although not one that was inhuman or degrading.

It acknowledges steps taken to make allowances for the boys' young age, in particular by cutting short the court sittings.

But this, and the provision of social workers in court, were regarded as "not inconsiderable safeguards" and meant the boys were denied a "fair and public hearing".

The report accepts the boys did understand what was at stake in the court but believes it is unlikely they understood points of law which arose or the "evidential intricacies".

[ image: Robert Thompson]
Robert Thompson
At the time of the conviction there was international criticism of the English practice of trying juveniles in adult courts.

The government said it was necessary to have a public trial in the interests of justice.

But the commission report did not not find this a compelling argument, and said "a child offender requires to be dealt with in special proceedings in a youth court in which the elements of formality and publicity have been modified".

'Severely intimidating'

The Commission continued: "It considers that the public trial process in an adult court with attendant publicity must be regarded in the case of an 11-year-old child as a severely intimidating procedure.

"The way in which the trial placed the applicants, in a raised dock, as the focus of intense public attention over a period of three weeks, must have seriously impinged on (their) ability to participate in the proceedings in any meaningful manner."

The Commission says it is "significant" that neither child gave evidence and believes the boys' psychological state was such that they could not realistically have been expected to do so.

"In these circumstances, the primary purposes of the proceedings, the establishment of the facts of the case and the allocation of responsibility, were impaired.

Public outrage

"The Commission recalls that the trial judge was unable at the conclusion of the trial to determine the relative culpability of the two defendants."

It also adds that when an alleged offender is a child, "the procedures adopted must be conducive to an active participation, as opposed to passive presence".

Otherwise, the report says "the trial risks presenting the appearance of an exercise in the vindication of public outrage".

However the commission rejected the argument of lawyers for Venables and Thompson that the trail represented "inhuman or degrading treatment".

It says the UK's age of responsibility for crime of 10 is "reletively low" but does not break the European Convention of Human Rights.

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