The continuing to-do about Secretary of State’s admission of “apparent bias” in the Westferry Printworks case got me thinking about other apparent bias cases and the overlap with the right to a fair hearing – basically as an excuse to mention this week’s startling case from the Supreme Court, Serafin v Malkiewicz (Supreme Court, 3 June 2020). All the cases in this bias/unfair hearing area have a gossipy, “you need to have been there”, feel to them, and there are lessons in all of them for all decision-makers.
After all, for all the constant chatter about the rights and wrongs of our planning system, at its very root it needs to be fair, and seen as fair. Aside from a being fundamental principle of our legal system, the right to a fair hearing in front of an independent and impartial decision maker is also given force by way of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights:
“In the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law…”
Serafin v Malkiewicz
Serafin v Malkiewicz is nothing to do with planning law. It concerns a libel action brought by a litigant in person who found himself against not so much the barrister on the other side but against the judge, Jay J (yes, really, non-lawyers, Jay J). He lost, badly. The Supreme Court judgment, by Lord Wilson attaches a schedule of extracts from the hearing in front of Jay J, which make truly excruciating reading – really and truly, an object lesson in how not to preside over any sort of hearing, let alone in relation to a litigant in person for whom English was not his first language. Imagine an inspector behaving in such a way.
The Supreme Court did not treat the issue in the case as one of potential apparent bias but as to whether the hearing had been fair. It referred to the distinction between the two principles, as described by Hildyard J in M&P Enterprises (London) Limited v Norfolk Square (Northern Square (Northern Section) Limited (High Court, 12 October 2018, namely that whereas “the fairness of a trial required objective judicial assessment, the appearance of bias fell to be judged through the eyes of the fair-minded and informed observer”.
“… it is far from clear that the observer would consider that the judge had given an appearance of bias. A painstaking reading of the full transcripts of the evidence given over four and a half days strongly suggests that, insofar as the judge evinced prejudice against the claimant, it was the product of his almost immediate conclusion that the claim was hopeless and that the hearing of it represented a disgraceful waste of judicial resources.”
“… when one considers the barrage of hostility towards the claimant’s case, and towards the claimant himself acting in person, fired by the judge in immoderate, ill-tempered and at times offensive language at many different points during the long hearing, one is driven, with profound regret, to uphold the Court of Appeal’s conclusion that he did not allow the claim to be properly presented; that therefore he could not fairly appraise it; and, that, in short, the trial was unfair. Instead of making allowance for the claimant’s appearance in person, the judge harassed and intimidated him in ways which surely would never have occurred if the claimant had been represented. It was ridiculous for the defendants to submit to us that, when placed in context, the judge’s interventions were “wholly justifiable”.”
The Court of Appeal had similarly concluded that the hearing had been unfair but had only concluded that part of the case be heard again. The Supreme Court went further:
“Lord Reed observed during the hearing that a judgment which results from an unfair trial is written in water. An appellate court cannot seize even on parts of it and erect legal conclusions upon them. That is why, whatever its precise meaning, it is so hard to understand the Court of Appeal’s unexplained order that all issues of liability had, in one way or another, been concluded. Had the Court of Appeal first addressed the issue of whether the trial had been unfair, it would have been more likely to recognise that the only proper order was for a retrial. It is no doubt highly desirable that, prior to any retrial, the parties should seek to limit the issues. It is possible that, in the light of what has transpired in the litigation to date, the claimant will agree to narrow the ambit of his claim and/or that the defendants will agree to narrow the ambit of their defences. But that is a matter for them. Conscious of how the justice system has failed both sides, this court, with deep regret, must order a full retrial.”
Porter v Magill
The classic articulation of the apparent bias test is by Lord Hope in Porter v Magill (House of Lords, 13 December 2001): the “question is whether the fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the tribunal was biased”.
Porter v Magill was of course part of the Lady Porter/Westminster City Council “homes for votes” saga. An auditor, John Magill, had been appointed to consider whether “three councillors and three officers had, by wilful misconduct, jointly and severally caused a loss of approximately £31m to the council which they were liable to make good.”
One of the councillors’ grounds of appeal against Mr Magill’s findings of the auditor, John Magill, was on the basis of apparent bias evidenced by the manner in which, ahead of his full inquiry, he had announced his provisional findings:
“A televised announcement was arranged at which the auditor himself appeared and, although he said that his views were provisional, he expressed them in florid language and supported them by reference to the thoroughness of the investigation which he claimed to have carried out. There was a further feature of the event which should have had no place in the middle of a quasi-judicial inquiry. A stack of ring binders on the desk at which the auditor sat bearing the name of his firm for the benefit of the cameras was, ostensibly, under the protection of a security guard: unless it was being implied that the persons under investigation might wish to steal the documents, it is not clear what was the purpose of this posturing.”
The court did not accept that there was apparent bias. In the words of Lord Hope:
“I think that it is plain…that the auditor made an error of judgment when he decided to make his statement in public at a press conference. The main impression which this would have conveyed to the fair-minded observer was that the purpose of this exercise was to attract publicity to himself, and perhaps also to his firm. It was an exercise in self-promotion in which he should not have indulged. But it is quite another matter to conclude from this that there was a real possibility that he was biased…. The auditor’s conduct must be seen in the context of the investigation which he was carrying out, which had generated a great deal of public interest. A statement as to his progress would not have been inappropriate. His error was to make it at a press conference. This created the risk of unfair reporting, but there was nothing in the words he used to indicate that there was a real possibility that he was biased. He was at pains to point out to the press that his findings were provisional. There is no reason to doubt his word on this point, as his subsequent conduct demonstrates. I would hold, looking at the matter objectively, that a real possibility that he was biased has not been demonstrated.”
Turning to a case with greater similarities to the Westferry Printworks situation, in Broadview Energy Developments Limited v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 22 June 2016) the Court of Appeal deprecated informal lobbying attempts by MPs, in that case Andrea Leadsom MP’s attempts to stop a wind farm scheme, with a conversation in the Commons tea-room and numerous emails from her to the minister, including one referring to her “badgering [him] in the lobby”. Longmore LJ in that case indicated that he “would not endorse that part of the judge’s judgment [at first instance] in which he said that lobbying of Ministers by MPs was part and parcel of the representative role of a constituency MP with its implication that such lobbying was permissible even when the Minister is making a quasi-judicial decision in relation to a controversial planning application. MPs should not, with respect, be in any different position from other interested parties.”
The court’s deprecation fell short of determining that the decision was as a result unlawful. On the specific question of bias:
“Nor do I think it arguable that a well informed observed would consider that there was a real possibility of bias on the part of Mr Hopkins. The well-informed observer would know that it was the responsibility of the relevant Minister to make difficult decisions about controversial projects such as on-shore wind farms. He would also know that sometimes such decisions are, as this one was, finely balanced. He would not think that a Minister’s decision in favour of a vocal body of local objectors supported by their local MP showed any bias against the promoter of the wind farm project. He would accept that the Minister had to make a decision one way or the other and think that the parties should accept the outcome.
Nevertheless the accusation of bias made in this case shows how important the principle is that Ministers making planning decisions should not allow themselves to be lobbied by parties to the planning process or by local MPs. If they do allow it, accusations of bias are all too easily made however unjustified they may be once the proper principles exemplified by Magill v Porter  2 AC 357 are applied.”
Turning from the position of ministers to that of inspectors:
Turner v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 11 June 2015) was a case where an objector to the proposed redevelopment of the Shell Centre, on London’s south bank, argued that the inquiry inspector had been biased in the way that he had dealt with his case at the inquiry, alleging, as set out in the judgment, that the inspector had curtailed his evidence and submissions and had made adverse procedural rulings.
In determining whether the inspector had acted inappropriately, the Court set out the approach to be followed as follows:
“The notional fair-minded observer would appreciate a number of aspects of the present context: (i) an inspector’s role has a strong inquisitorial dimension, investigating matters in a way which will enable him to report helpfully to the relevant decision-maker, the Secretary of State; with that end in view, it is fair and appropriate for an inspector to seek to focus debate at an inquiry by making interventions to ensure that he is provided with material to assist him in his task; (ii) an inspector has to manage efficiently the conduct of an inquiry within a limited time-frame and involving a range of parties wishing to give evidence, make submissions and participate in cross-examination of witnesses; this may require robust case management in the interests of all participants; (iii) an inspector is entitled to expect, and may legitimately seek to encourage, focused questioning and short and focused answers in the course of cross-examination of witnesses; (iv) the inquiry process provides an inspector with relevant information through a range of media, including written opening statements, examination of plans and the making of detailed closing submissions, as well as through the evidence of witnesses (both by witness statement and orally in cross-examination), and an inspector is expected to have done a good deal of preparation before an inquiry commences and is entitled to seek to focus debate on particular issues in the form which is most likely to provide clarity about what is at stake and assistance for him in writing a report; and (v) as part of his inquiry-management function, and to encourage a focus on what is most likely to assist him in his reporting task, an inspector is entitled to give indications in the course of an inquiry of points which appear to him to be unrealistic or bad and to require concentration on what appear to him to be the real substantive points of contention or where continued debate will be most helpful to him. It is of course possible that an inspector may go too far in robust inquiry management or in closing down debate, so as to give an appearance of bias. But given the expectation that an inspector should be actively managing the inquiry process to ensure that it is efficient, effective and fair to all interested parties, it will be a rare case, as Woolf J observed, in which it is likely that robust inquiry management will be found to have done so.
Another part of the context is the guidance issued by the Planning Inspectorate in the form of “The Inspector’s Code of Conduct”. This sets out principles of conduct for inspectors. Amongst other things, they “should make their decisions and recommendations fairly and in the public interest”; “should not be fettered with pre-determined views and should not judge cases before they have considered the evidence”; “should not be influenced by irrelevant considerations or outside influences when making their decisions and recommendations”; “should avoid unnecessary delay in reaching their decisions and recommendations”; and “should treat each person with dignity and respect”, behaving “at all times with courtesy, patience and understanding, whilst at the same time ensuring that cases are conducted efficiently and effectively.” This guidance is designed to promote best practice. It does not in itself create the standard by which an appearance of bias is to be judged. For example, a lapse in courtesy or patience on the part of an inspector in the course of an inquiry will not in itself give an appearance of bias in the requisite sense. A good deal more than that would be required: cf HCA International Ltd v The Competition and Markets Authority  EWCA Civ 492, in which even a serious element of actual unfairness of treatment of the appellant by the relevant public authority, which misled the appellant at one stage about an aspect of its inquiry, was found not to create an appearance of bias or pre-determination such as to prevent the same personnel in that authority from making a re-determination of matters in contention. (So that we are not misunderstood, and in fairness to the Inspector in the present case, we should add that on the limited evidence which is available we are not persuaded that he behaved discourteously to Mr Turner or anyone else at the inquiry).”
The court dismissed the appeal: “None of the matters relied on by Mr Turner, whether taken individually or together, indicate that there was a real possibility that the Inspector was biased. The Inspector acted properly and without giving any appearance of bias according to the relevant test in Porter v Magill.”
Turner was applied in Satnam Millennium Limited v Secretary of State (Sir Duncan Ouseley, 8 October 2019). Satnam challenged the decision by the Secretary of State, on the recommendation of his inspector, to dismiss an appeal in relation a large development proposal in Warrington. Whilst the judge upheld the challenge on other grounds, he rejected a submission that the inspector had showed apparent bias in the way that he conducted the inquiry, as well as the site visit. Again the judgment is a good read as to the facts, particularly paragraphs 112 to 189. Extracts from the PINS manual for inspectors are at paragraphs 190 to 194 and the general legal principles are set out at paragraphs 195 to 206. The judge’s detailed conclusions, in which he rejects the various complaints, are at paragraphs 229 to 254. There are some interesting pointers as to the conduct of hearings and inquiries and as a cheerful point to end on…
Humour is not forbidden:
“The grumbling from Mr Griffiths about a resident giving her evidence in song, followed by the quick interchange over giving evidence in dance and northern humour, rather illustrated my concern about where he was pitching his concern. This was but a moment of light heartedness, essentially initiated by the witness, and briefly responded to by the Inspector. Some Inspectors might have kept silent; but there is nothing in this at all. Not all judges or counsel are humourless automatons either. Although it would avoid some problems if Inspectors were, it could create others at an Inquiry with feelings running high and large numbers of the public attending. This was all very much part of a legitimate judgment about how to run a difficult Inquiry in those venues, with the facilities, and participants there were.”
“I accept that there would have been an impression of familiarity with individuals to whom [the inspector] had spoken on a daily basis, but that does not contrast with how he spoke to the other participants; they were not ignored, their greetings, if any, dismissed. “Banter” is very much in the eye and ear of the beholder. I am not prepared to regard any of it as indicative of possible bias.”
Reading these various cases again, and thinking again about Westferry Printworks, doesn’t so much of this come down to common sense and the facts of each situation rather than the application of any difficult legal concepts? The courts may be surprisingly reluctant at times to intervene (which makes so telling the Serafin ruling, as well as the decision of the government legal department not even to seek to contest Westferry) but decision makers should know what’s not right and, equally importantly, what doesn’t look right.
Simon Ricketts, 6 June 2020
Personal views, et cetera