In the case of HYA and Others (C-348/21, 8.12.2022), the CJEU ruled on whether national legislation which allowed a person to be convicted on the basis of statements by witnesses who had not been cross-examined by the defence at the trial was compatible with the Directive on the strengthening of certain aspects of the presumption of innocence and of the right to be present at the trial in criminal proceedings (2016/343), read in combination with Articles 47(2) and 48, paragraph 2, of the EU-Charter.
The issue at the heart of the present case was about whether there was a right for the accused not only to attend their trial, as stipulated by Article 8(1) of the Directive, but also to cross-examine witnesses at the trial. Whereas under the Convention the answer to that question is obvious, spelled out as it is in its Article 6 § 3 d), the CJEU had to make long developments, thereby relying on the Strasbourg case-law, to come to the same conclusion. This is because the said Directive is silent about that issue.
Thus, next to such other recent rulings as in Spetsializirana prokuratura, HN and DD applying the same Directive, this case is another telling illustration of the limits of what the Directives on procedural rights in criminal proceedings, as the one at stake in this case, can achieve. While these directives are meant to codify and reinforce current case-law with a view to enhancing mutual trust amongst member States (see Recital 10 of the Directive at stake in this case), their weakness lies in the fact that they can cover only part of the huge amount of case-law existing in this field, while at the same time they freeze the part of the case-law which they actually cover, with the risk of being overtaken by events in case of further developments of that case-law. The result are important lacunae in these directives which the CJEU undertakes to gradually fill, not least by drawing to a significant extent on the Strasbourg case-law.
In the present case, the CJEU first found, after some lengthy developments, that a right for an accused to just attend their trial without at the same time having the possibility to exercise at this trial the rights of the defence, including the right to cross-examine the witnesses for the prosecution, would strip the right to a fair trial of its essential content (§ 45).
The CJEU then turned to the possible limitations to the right to cross-examine witnesses, more specifically whether the accused could be convicted on the basis of witness statements made during the investigation of the criminal case, in the absence of the accused and their lawyer. Here, another difficulty arose in that the Strasbourg and Luxembourg methodologies on this score differ. The CJEU, for its part, opted for squeezing the methodology applied by the ECtHR into its own methodology, which is based on Article 52(1) of the EU-Charter, thus complicating matters much more than would be necessary under the sole Convention.
In concrete terms, whereas the Strasbourg approach concerning limitations is based on an assessment of the proceedings as a whole, looking at whether any limitations or procedural flaws may have been offset by counter-balancing factors (see Ibrahim and Others, Beuze), the CJEU relied on Article 52(1) of the EU-Charter and in that context applied three different criteria: the existence of a legal basis, the preservation of the essential content of the right at stake and the proportionality of the limitations to it (§ 50).
It is under the second criterion, the essential content of the right, that the domestic courts are instructed by the CJEU to apply the Strasbourg case-law here, in particular the test of the proceedings considered as a whole (§§ 52 and 55), as in Al-Khawaja and Tahery and Schatschaschwili. What follows is a faithful description of that Strasbourg jurisprudence and its criteria, ordered to be applied as part of the said Directive and in the context of Article 52(1) of the EU-Charter. The final assessment is thereby left to the referring court, the CJEU recalling that under Art. 267 TFEU it has competence only to interpret EU law, not to apply it (§ 49).
All in all, this ruling is a welcome contribution by the CJEU to maintaining jurisprudential harmony with Strasbourg, by taking on bord large parts of the Strasbourg case-law, thus protecting domestic courts from having to face Convention liability. That said, the lacunae of Directive 2016/343 and the combination of two partly different methodologies generate a regrettable level of complexity for domestic courts, when compared with the Strasbourg approach.