Section 21 of the Human Rights Act 2004 says that:
The right to a fair trial under section 21 of the HR Act is not confined to criminal cases. Whether a person is a defendant in a criminal case or a party to civil proceedings, they have the right to a fair trial before a competent, independent and impartial court or tribunal established by law.
Section 21 provides that judgments and hearings must be public unless other laws (for example for child protection) provide otherwise.
Section 22 sets out more specific minimum guarantees in criminal trials.
This right can be relevant in areas such as:
In this case, the ACT Supreme Court confirmed that ‘the right to elect for a trial by judge alone is not part of, nor any aspect of, the right to a fair trial within section 21 of the [HR Act]’. However, Refshague J held that ‘the constitution of the tribunal which hears and determines a criminal charge is a matter of significance and importance’. Thus, a jury which has an appearance of bias will not provide a human rights compliant trial.
In this case the appellant doctor was the subject of two separate complaints. The Medical Board of the ACT notified the appellant that a Professional Standards Panel would be established to inquire into the complaints. The investigations were however, delayed. The appellant sought a stay of proceedings, arguing that the delay breached his right to a fair trial. The Supreme Court dismissed the application, holding that some delay in bringing proceedings is inevitable. In this case the delay was not unreasonable owing to the complexity of the issues, and the fact that the appellant bore some responsibility for the delay.
The Court held further that the test for the appropriate remedy for a breach of the right to a trial without unreasonable delay is one of proportionality. That is: (1) whether any proposed hearing would be unfair; and (2) whether there would be any relevant prejudice suffered by the appellant.
In this case, the Victorian Supreme Court considered whether a police officer should have to produce certain documents relevant to the defendant’s trial for tax evasion. The Court discussed the principle of ‘equality of arms,’ which requires that the defendant must not be at a significant disadvantage compared with the prosecution in terms of access to evidence or resources if there is to be a fair hearing.
While the right to disclosure of relevant evidence is not an absolute right, and may be balanced against competing interests such as national security or the need to protect witnesses, the rights of the accused in the present case prevailed. The Court decided that the police officer had to produce the evidence requested by the defendant to ensure a fair trial.
The actions of public authorities can both promote and limit rights. Section 21 could be engaged by activities that: