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Freshfields Risk & Compliance

| 4 minutes read

UK Supreme Court addresses the role of medical evidence in torture cases

The UK Supreme Court handed down judgment today in a significant asylum case, KV (Sri Lanka) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2019] UKSC 10, providing authoritative guidance on the correct approach to medical evidence in assessing torture claims. Freshfields acted pro bono for the three intervening charities who raised public interest concerns in the case.

KV alleges that the scarring on his back and arm are evidence of torture he suffered while detained by the Sri Lankan authorities, and made an asylum claim in the UK on this basis. The full background to the appeal is set out in the Supreme Court press release. KV’s claim was dismissed by the Secretary of State and on appeal to the First-Tier and Upper Tribunals. Based on the available evidence, the Upper Tribunal considered there were only two real possible explanations for the scarring: they were either the result of torture or this wounding was self-inflicted by proxy (SIBP) to fabricate an asylum claim. The Upper Tribunal was not, however, satisfied that his account of torture was reasonably likely to be true. In March 2017, a majority in the Court of Appeal (i) found that the Upper Tribunal was entitled to reach the conclusion it did; and (ii) in doing so made what Lord Wilson in the Supreme Court describes as “controversial observations about the limit of the role of a medical expert in contributing to the evidence referable to a claim of torture”.

The three leading charities in the UK that provide expert support and treatment to people who have suffered torture and other forms of serious harm and train doctors to provide medico-legal reports in asylum claims and detention cases – the Helen Bamber Foundation, Freedom from Torture and Medical Justice – were granted permission to intervene jointly in this case. The core concerns shared by the charities were that the majority judgment of the Court of Appeal had (i) significantly and unduly limited the role of medical experts in torture cases; and (ii) misinterpreted and inappropriately sidelined the Istanbul Protocol, the internationally recognised standards for documenting torture and ill-treatment endorsed by the United Nations.[1]

In a powerful single judgment from Lord Wilson, the Supreme Court unanimously allowed KV’s appeal and directed the Upper Tribunal to determine KV’s appeal afresh. In assessing whether there was an error of law in the approach taken by the lower courts to the complex medical evidence in this case, the Supreme Court resolved conflicts in the case-law and made a number of clear statements on questions of general public importance.

The key points of wider public interest are as follows:

  • Doctor’s remit: The Supreme Court held that a medical expert does not trespass beyond their remit in giving an expert opinion on the degree of consistency between their clinical findings and the account of torture – in fact, such evidence can be of “significant value” to a decision-maker. The Court of Appeal’s judgment on this was inconsistent with the approach of the Secretary State’s own Asylum Policy Instruction, the International Refugee Law Judges’ manual, earlier decisions of the Court of Appeal and the European Court of Human Rights.
  • Status of the Istanbul Protocol: The Tribunal’s Practice Direction on the duties of an expert in general are not a sufficient substitute for applying the principles and methodology of the Istanbul Protocol in the medical assessment of torture. The Istanbul Protocol should be recognised as “equally authoritative” for experts in these cases.
  • Interpretation of the Istanbul Protocol:  The Supreme Court made a number of key observations on relevant parts of the Istanbul Protocol, which mandate the doctor to conduct an overall assessment of whether the clinical picture is consistent with the torture story. In particular:
    • The Supreme Court ruled that references to consistency with the “trauma” described in paragraph 187 of the Istanbul Protocol clearly covers the wider circumstances in which the injury is said to have been sustained, and is not limited to the mechanism by which the injury was caused.
    • The Supreme Court endorsed the importance of the six key questions that paragraph 105 of the Istanbul Protocol requires doctor to ask themselves when formulating a clinical impression - these include: (i) whether both physical and psychological findings are consistent with the alleged report of torture; and (ii) whether the clinical picture suggests a fake allegation of torture.
  • Rarity of SIBP: The judgment emphasises that evidence of wounding SIBP among asylum-seekers was almost “non-existent” and endorses the view expressed by Elias J in his dissent in the Court of Appeal that “considerable weight should be given to the fact that injuries which are SIBP are likely to be extremely rare”.
  • Rejecting one of two explanations:  An intuitive but crucial point that this cases raises is that where a decision-maker’s “inquiry into disputed circumstances of a past event leads you to conclude that there are only two real possibilities and if you then proceed to reject one of them, you are necessarily concluding that the other possibility represents what happened”. This reasoning would be particularly relevant not only to torture cases but other cases such as personal injury or domestic violence.

This case therefore provides welcome, clear guidance for medical experts and administrative / judicial decision-makers alike, from the highest court in the UK. Indeed, the case will be of interest to authorities, legal practitioners, NGOs and medical experts internationally given the widespread use of the Istanbul Protocol guidance in the investigation of torture worldwide.

The authoritative ruling also offers useful general guidance on the role of appellate courts in cases that involve the assessment of complex expert evidence. Lord Wilson highlighted that “the drawing of a fine-tooth comb through any judicial survey of complex evidence written across 368 paragraphs is likely to discover a tangle in it” but found one of the flaws in the reasoning of the Upper Tribunal in this case was “more than a minor tangle” – it constituted the reason for rejecting the core element of the expert’s evidence that corroborated the appellant’s case, and therefore merited interference on appeal.

Freshfields advised the Helen Bamber Foundation, Freedom from Torture and Medical Justice on their successful intervention in the proceedings. The Freshfields team - partner Craig Montgomery, senior associate Jonathan Pagan and Associates Daniel Hunt and Ramya Arnold – worked closely with Stephanie Harrison QC, Ali Bandegani and Mark Symes of Garden Court Chambers, all acting pro bono. Freshfields continues to advise a number of charities and NGOs pro bono on interventions in the public interest in human rights cases.

The judgment is available here:

[1] Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1999).