Interviews in an Embassy

In the furore over the Julian Assange case, much has been made of a purported offer made by Mr Assange to be interviewed by the Swedish Prosecution Authority in the Ecuadorean Embassy.

This post has been picked up on by @loveandgarbage, a Scottish Lawyer, who claims that the well-known case of Smith v DPP and Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police [2011] UKSC 666 provides a sound legal basis for conducting such an interview. He summarises the case here.

As a result of this crucial case it is the right of any accused person who has breached bail conditions and is located in England to tell the prosecuting authorities where, when, and how he or she should be questioned. Given this decision it is unsurprising that supporters of Julian Assange are pointing out that he should be allowed to determine where and when he is questioned in relation to the accusations against him. After all it is an absolute right of the suspect or accused in any criminal case to control the process, fought for over many long years. I am only surprised that so many lawyers south of the border and in Sweden seem oblivious to this key legal principle.

This is, however, one of the worst examples of a Misleading Case I have ever seen.

Although it is true that factually this case is very similar to that one, the principle loveandgarbage extracts from it is closer to garbage than love.

What is overlooked here, and it really is a key part of the ratio, is that the maisonette was in West London. That was the narrow ground upon which the appeal was upheld.

As Lord Hope said:

“West London is generally understood to be a wonderful part of the world where people are of sufficient wealth that they can be trusted to answer the questions truthfully and honestly. I, like many of my brother judges, live in West London and some of my best friends are there. I am convinced that absolutely nobody who can afford to live there could be of such disreputable character that they would need to be treated like a common criminal in a police interview. It is on this narrow ground that we allow the appeal. If the Appellant had lived in, for example, Bermondsey, it would be a completely different matter and the Court would have to pay careful attention to such matters as the appellant’s income, schooling, background and demeanour before granting this right.”

In so ruling the Court made it clear that it was extending the principle established in Sturges v Bridgman (1879) LR 11 Ch D 852, which held that “what would be a nuisance in Belgrave Square would not necessarily be so in Bermondsey”, and firmly established that Londoners are to be afforded differential treatment based on their postcode.

It is not correct to describe the right as absolute. Indeed, given that the Ecuadorean Embassy is, allegedly, sovereign territory outside the United Kingdom, it is not clear whether the ratio would apply to such a case. The Court was emphatic that the interview, and the suspect had to be “in West London”. Assange, however, claims to be in the sovereign territory of Ecuador. Accordingly, there are strong grounds for arguing that he is not in West London at all, and should be interviewed like the ordinary inhabitants of Bethnal Green (DPP v Jones [2010] UKHL 123).

It is this sort of sloppy misreporting and misrepresentation of the law, coupled with an uncritical retweeting of anything that appears to support one’s case, that has bedevilled sensible discussion of this case. One hopes that from here on in things would be made clearer.

9 thoughts on “Interviews in an Embassy”

  1. I fear that it is culinaryarts’s satire sensors that are malfunctioning – not the author’s.

  2. I fell for this too; even fired off an indignant tweet. On reflection, it would have made headlines at the time (you’d hope)!

  3. No, wait, it would appear the FOI officer didn’t fall for it, but was in on it. I just fell for the FOI officer falling for it. This is getting very complex. I’d hate to be on the receiving end of a lawyer’s practical joke is all I can say.

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