In December 2021, the High Court ruled that Julian Assange could be extradited to the USA, reversing a previous decision of Westminster Magistrates’ Court that extradition would be unjust or oppressive due to Mr Assange’s mental condition.
The ruling of the High Court was based on a package of diplomatic assurances provided by the US government about how and where Mr Assange would be detained if extradited and/or convicted. The assurances had been provided after the Magistrates’ Court found that Mr Assange was at a high risk of suicide if imprisoned in the very harsh regime that can be imposed on prisoners, who are considered a threat to national security, by the US. These fresh assurances were said by the USA to be sufficient to meet that concern, and the High Court agreed.
Among the assurances were undertakings that Mr Assange would not, at this time, be subject to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), restricting his correspondence, visits and use of the telephone, nor detained at USP Florence ADMAX (ADX), a maximum-security prison in Colorado.
Crucially, however, these assurances were subject to the caveat that the US retained the power to impose such conditions if Mr Assange were to commit any future act that meets the tests for the imposition of SAMs or designation to ADX.
Application to the Supreme Court
As anticipated, Mr Assange sought permission to appeal the High Court judgment to the Supreme Court on the basis that there is a point of law of general public importance involved in the decision. He argued that the Supreme Court’s guidance was required on three questions of law regarding the assurances.
Firstly, he submitted that the Supreme Court ought to consider the question of whether a court can consider assurances that are introduced for the first time on appeal.
The second and third questions related to the caveat in the assurances concerning future acts. Mr Assange questioned whether it could be lawful to allow for potential exposure to conditions under SAMs or in ADX if the imposition of those prison regimes was judged by the US authorities to be justified by his own conduct. In Mr Assange’s case, this was said to be particularly important because conduct could involve speech, and also because it was accepted that he suffers from a severe mental condition.
On 24 January 2022, only the first question was certified by the High Court as an issue of general public importance:
In what circumstances can an appellate court receive assurances from a requesting state which were not before the court of first instance in extradition proceedings.
In the view of the High Court, this point of law is settled, but the High Court has certified a point of law of general public importance with regards to the provision of assurances at a later stage in proceedings, as the Supreme Court has not yet considered this specific question. The High Court concluded that the Supreme Court should have an opportunity to do so, since assurances are at the heart of many extradition proceedings and are increasingly relied on.
In extradition proceedings, assurances are not currently classed as ‘evidence’, but as ‘issues’, and therefore do not necessarily attract the same scrutiny. This also means they can be introduced after all evidence has been heard and tested.
The Supreme Court itself will now decide whether or not it should hear the appeal on this point.
Extradition practitioners largely welcome Supreme Court guidance on this point as late assurances designed to alleviate the court’s concerns about human rights violations following extradition have become a highly contentious issue, especially when provided by States with a poor record in human rights themselves.
It is of note that the High Court refused to certify the point of law with regards to future acts and did not appear to be overly concerned regarding the conditional nature of the diplomatic assurances provided. Mr Assange’s lawyers argued that the principle of absolute protection against inhuman or degrading treatment, contrary to Article 3, should also apply in cases where an individual’s mental condition is such that even if they are moved to a severe regime due to their behaviour (including speech), extradition should still be barred as oppressive (s91 Extradition Act) because the severity of the regime will cause such a deterioration in their mental health. The assurances provided do not rule out this possibility. This would have been an interesting issue for the Supreme Court to have considered, but that opportunity is no longer available.
Meanwhile, Mr Assange is likely to appeal to the High Court those grounds where he was unsuccessful before the District Judge at Westminster, as he was unable to cross appeal while the US appealed the District Judge decision. These grounds will largely focus on political motivation, freedom of speech and fair trial issues. If leave to appeal on the certified point is refused by the Supreme Court, Mr Assange still therefore has an opportunity to appeal to the High Court and his fight continues.