The meaning of means: mental elements of drug importation in Australia

To find out what the law is you first look for relevant legislation. When deciding how to explain the law about the state of mind required for proof of unlawful importation into Australia of a border controlled drug, a judge will first look at the Criminal Code (C’th). Relevant sections are s 307.1 and the fault elements defined in ss 5.1 – 5.4.

The High Court of Australia in Smith v The Queen, The Queen v Afford [2017] HCA 19 (10 May 2017) (hereafter “Smith”) at [69] has given guidance as to how to logically apply this legislation to cases where the mental elements of unlawful importation of a narcotic are in issue.

These appeals reached the High Court because of difficulties around how the process of drawing inferences should be explained. Difficulties arose because of the need for intention as to one element but only recklessness as to another. Intention is necessary as to the bringing of a thing (whatever it may be) into Australia, and recklessness is sufficient as to whether it is a border controlled drug.

Inference drawing is a matter of proof. Proof of intention by inference can arise from circumstances which show that the defendant “was aware of the likelihood, in the sense that there was a significant or real chance, that his conduct involved [the prohibited] act and nevertheless persisted in that conduct”: Kural v The Queen (1987) 162 CLR 502, [1987] HCA 16 (and quoted in Smith at [7]). The statutory language changed after Kural, and now the concept of a significant or real chance calls to mind the phrase “a substantial risk” in the definition of recklessness (s 5.4).

The risk of confusing the old common law with the new statutory language no doubt lies behind the joint judgment’s comment in Smith at [68] that “looking to the future it might be preferable if directions given in cases like these were made to align more closely to the language of the Code, and in particular to the statutory definition of intent in s 5.2”.

In s 5.2(1), intention includes meaning to do something, here, to import the substance (at [6]). The Court’s guidance as to appropriate directions on the drawing of inferences include (at [69] para 8(ii)) that it is open to use a proven belief that there was a real or significant chance that the thing was done, to support an inference that it was meant to be done. This comes from the Kural exposition of the law, and needs to be read in the light of the Court’s fuller explanation. The point in Smith is that awareness of a real or significant chance means that “it is open to infer on the basis of all the facts and circumstances of the case that the accused intended to import the substance” (at [60]), and where “a person is aware of a real or significant chance of the presence of an extraneous substance in an object which the person brings into Australia, and does nothing by way of inspection or declaration to avoid the risk of its presence, the circumstances of the case strongly suggest that the person’s state of mind is, in truth, that he or she is prepared to proceed with bringing the object into Australia even if the substance is in the object; and thus that the person means and intends to import the substance” (at [59]).

This is perilously close to recklessness at common law, and one must wonder whether attempts to substitute for the clear language of a statute are necessarily helpful. Did the word “means” in s 5.2(1) really need to be explained in terms of a real and substantial risk?

Knowledge, in law, includes wilful blindness. This is the state of mind of a person who ignores a suspicion because of a determination to remain ignorant of the truth. That person is deemed to know the truth. See R v Briscoe 2010 SCC 13, [2010] 1 SCR 411, and R v Martin [2007] NZCA 386 at [11] where consistency with R v Kural [1986] VR 673 at 676-678 is noted. So, acting with that knowledge is meaning to do that thing, and is intending to do it. This is different from recklessness, where a person simply fails to take the measures that a reasonable person would have taken to investigate whether the suspicion is true.

Interesting decisions pending

As you know by now, much of law involves waiting. Waiting for decisions of appellate courts gives law much of its suspense. Perhaps. Here are some interesting points awaiting determination:

Grounds for search

When the adequacy of grounds for a search are assessed, should illegally or improperly obtained information be disregarded? An appeal from [suppressed] [2015] NZCA 628 is on the way.  [Update: Oops, this escaped my attention; it was decided on 29 March that information that has previously been ruled inadmissible may usually (except in extraordinary circumstances involving torture or violence) be used in an application for a warrant, but when admissibility of evidence consequently discovered is determined the illegality or impropriety will be relevant to the balancing exercise: [2017] NZSC 42. I expect the effect of this will be to reduce the exclusionary effect of s 30 of the Evidence Act 2006 by permitting the admission of improperly obtained evidence of less serious offences than previously.]

Mental elements of unlawful drug possession and related offences

Does the mental element that makes possession of a drug unlawful include recklessness? Related to this, is there a good-faith defence, and if so, when? I’m not sure if there are suppression orders still in effect in this one, but let’s pretend there are: see [suppressed?] [2016] NZSC 87 (leave granted).

Privacy balancing

When, if ever, is a defendant’s right to privacy diminished by another person’s privacy right that has been breached by the defendant? If breach of another person’s privacy does reduce the defendant’s own privacy right for the purposes of the admissibility balancing exercise, would it be double-counting to also take the breach of the other person’s privacy as increasing the public interest in admitting the evidence? More abstractly, can policy justify compromising the logic of the balancing exercise, and if so, when? See [name suppressed] (CA597/2016) v R [2017] NZCA 118, granting leave for a second pre-trial appeal.

Is an electronic file an object?

The “Dotcom” case continues its slow climb up the judicial hierarchy, but it seems to me that the central point is easy to state (and should be easy to decide): is an electronic file an object in which there can be a copyright? An appeal, or two appeals, from Ortmann v United States of America [2017] NZHC 189 (see [169]-[192]) could settle that.

The Arnold Solution

I ask, just for fun, whether you have read Thurman Arnold’s “The Role of Substantive Law and Procedure in the Legal Process”. It is available courtesy of the Yale Law School’s Faculty Scholarship Series, here, and will also be found in 45 Harvard Law Review 617 (February, 1932). Yes, 1932.

He uses “procedure” in a special sense, rather than its classification as found in the law school curriculum (p 647, fn 44). Also used in a special sense is “substantive law” which is the body of legal precedent that has been established and which has been accorded reverence because of its attributes and those recognised in the legal system, and by society, attaching to courts. Substantive law concerns principles, whereas procedure is entirely practical. Procedure is not tradition-bound but changes in the light of practical requirements. Whereas substantive law may be restated, procedure can be reformed. The difference is only in attitude, “any doctrine may be treated as procedure and the problem discussed, or as substantive law and the principle stated” (p 643).

Given these special definitions of substantive law and procedure it is plain that Arnold is not talking about what we would call substantive law and procedure. So, what is he saying?

His fear is that the multiplication of precedents through increased reporting of cases will reduce the law to confusion and chaos. The way to avoid this, he says, is to reduce access to appeals. The English did this, he further says, in criminal law by requiring that a miscarriage of justice had to be “substantial” before an appeal against conviction would be allowed. This was a barrier which discouraged appeals and minimised disruption to the established body of precedent. (p 638)

“It is this ability of the English to keep an ideal from too close contact with reality which explains the prestige which they are able to throw around their institutions.” (p 640)

He quotes, at p 639 fn 29, the then hot-off-the-press Goodhart, Essays in Jurisprudence and the Common Law (1931) at 57:

“Perhaps the reason why the English Lawyer is not dissatisfied with the present system is that the ‘myriad’ precedents do not exist. The English cases to 1865 are reprinted in the English Reports in about 175 volumes. The semi-official Law Reports from 1865 to the present date occupy about 450 volumes. Thus 625 volumes make up a complete working library.”

Wonderful times indeed, not that I personally remember them. But how different is it today?

The point is not the number of volumes in which the law can be printed, but the ease with which the law can be ascertained. It hardly matters how many millions of precedents there are, if the relevant ones can be obtained from an electronic database almost instantly. Present problems are around applying acquired legal skills to honing down electronic search results to bring into focus the cases that are truly relevant, and keeping those to a minimum. A concentration on cases that have been cited and discussed in recent decisions should assist this focusing process. So instead of having 625 volumes on the shelves, a practitioner need only have a few leading textbooks and a subscription to an appropriate electronic database.

But Arnold, if he were here today, might still be concerned about what is happening, behind the electronics, to the law itself. Is it becoming uncertain because of confusion arising from what is, in effect, the use of legal principles as if they were rules. Multiplication of exceptions and additions of refinements could be moving the fundamentals in a way which makes them less venerable and worthy of the reverence that has, he would say, attached to the law and the courts. Would it be practical to counter this by restricting arguments about the application of precedent to trial courts, and only allow cases that require discussion of principles to go to the appeal courts?

This points to the real question, whether there is something that needs to be countered. Has the digital revolution saved the law from the Arnold solution?

Proving propensity

Propensity evidence is evidence about the defendant’s conduct, not directly connected to the presently alleged offending, but which shows a propensity to act in a way that is relevant to an issue now before the court. To what, if any, standard must propensity be proved before it can be used in the process of determining the facts on the present allegation?

The United Kingdom Supreme Court has held that propensity must be proved beyond reasonable doubt before it can be taken into account in fact-finding: R v Mitchell (Northern Ireland) [2016] UKSC 55 (19 October 2016).

The Court noted that the common law had not settled this question, and legislation only covered admissibility, not standard of proof.

New Zealand common law has taken the position, almost as a mere assumption, that no particular standard of proof of propensity is required, but that instead admissible evidence of propensity is just circumstantial evidence that can be considered with all the other evidence in determining guilt on the present charge. For example, see R v Guy (1996) 13 CRNZ 589 (CA). And if the defendant had been previously charged with offending that would be evidence of a relevant propensity, but had been acquitted, evidence of the facts supporting that earlier allegation can, notwithstanding the acquittal, be given to prove the propensity: R v Degnan [2001] 1 NZLR 280, (2000) 18 CRNZ 319 (CA).

Is there necessarily an inconsistency here with Mitchell? That case only requires the propensity, not the evidence of it, to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Its effect is that the method for determining facts if propensity evidence is relied on is to consider all the admissible evidence of propensity, to assess it and to decide whether propensity is proved beyond reasonable doubt. If it is, then it may be taken into account with the evidence of the present allegation. If it is not proved to that standard it must be ignored. It is not mixed with the other evidence in the case when the fact-finder is deciding whether there is a propensity.

This is inconsistent with the New Zealand approach. See for example R v Holtz [2003] 1 NZLR 667, (2002) 20 CRNZ 14 (CA), discussed here on 14 October 2004, where no standard of proof is required except for an ultimate conclusion of guilt. It is sufficient (at [39]) that the fact-finder “conclude” or be “satisfied” that the evidence of propensity establishes the relevant propensity. There the Court “rejected a general requirement that pattern or the like must be found beyond reasonable doubt before similar fact evidence may be used”.

The Mitchell rule requires the fact-finder to ignore evidence that is in reality highly probative. The judicial consideration of a variety of solutions to this problem in HML v The Queen [2008] HCA 16 (discussed here on 26 April 2008) was not mentioned in Mitchell. In Mohammed v R [2011] NZSC 52, [2011] 3 NZLR 145, (2011) 25 CRNZ 223 (discussed here) the focus was on other aspects of how juries should be directed on propensity evidence, so this point may still be open.

Error and injustice

In Booth v R [2016] NZSC 127 the Court changed the interpretation of the Parole Act 2002 to make some prisoners eligible for release earlier than they had been under the law as it had been understood and applied.

The Court did not decide whether any prisoners should get compensation.

When considering whether compensation should be given, there are several categories of prisoners to look at:
1.   Some prisoners were released the day after Booth was decided.
2.   Others will be released as soon as inspection of their files reveals that they should be released under Booth.
3.   Other prisoners will have their release dates re-calculated in compliance with Booth.
4.   And some prisoners have served their sentences under the law as it had previously been understood to have been, but if Booth had been applied to them they would have been released earlier.

Plainly, category 3 prisoners will be released on their correctly calculated dates and will not have been imprisoned longer than the law now permits. Compensation is not an issue for them.

Compensation is a live issue for category 2 prisoners whose release is delayed because of the time needed to ascertain their eligibility for release under Booth.

Less obvious, but still in my view fairly clear, is the position of prisoners in categories 1 and 4. These prisoners have all been in custody for longer periods that the law under Booth allows. But were they unlawfully detained? They were detained in compliance with the law as it had been understood to have been under a Court of Appeal decision (Taylor v Superintendent of Auckland Prison [2003] NZCA 159; [2003] 3 NZLR 752 (CA).) That case was not appealed (an appeal would have had to go to the Privy Council) and it was a long-standing precedent.

Does a change in the interpretation of legislation have retrospective effect? Courts have an inherent power to limit the retrospective effect of their decisions: Cadder v HM Advocate (Scotland) [2010] UKSC 43 at [58]. In Jogee and Ruddock v R [2016] UKSC 8 at [100] the principle of finality in litigation was referred to in the context of (what may be seen as more fundamental) the issue of convictions obtained under law which was subsequently held to have been wrongly understood:

“ … where a conviction has been arrived at by faithfully applying the law as it stood at the time, it can be set aside only by seeking exceptional leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal out of time. That court has power to grant such leave, and may do so if substantial injustice be demonstrated, but it will not do so simply because the law applied has now been declared to have been mistaken. This principle has been consistently applied for many years.”

And in the same paragraph the Court added:

“Likewise in Mitchell (1977) 65 Cr App R 185, 189, Geoffrey Lane LJ re-stated the principle thus:

“It should be clearly understood, and this court wants to make it even more abundantly clear, that the fact that there has been an apparent change in the law or, to put it more precisely, that previous misconceptions about the meaning of a statute have been put right, does not afford a proper ground for allowing an extension of time in which to appeal against conviction.”

It is not the change in law that is the decisive point, but it is whether an exceptional substantive injustice can be demonstrated by a prisoner whose sentence was served under the old understanding of the law. Here the exceptional and substantive injustice is the detaining of prisoners in the Booth category for longer than they should have been as a result of not counting all their time on remand as part of the sentence served. Those who were released on parole at the earliest opportunity have therefore been detained for longer than was lawful because a proper allowance for time served was not made when calculating their parole eligibility dates. Similarly, those who were not released on parole but who had to serve their sentences until their statutory release dates were detained for longer than they should have been if the miscalculation of credit for time spent on remand meant that their statutory release dates were later than they should have been. It can not matter for this seriousness of impropriety that the unlawfulness was only recently discovered: the fact that the officials were obeying the misconceived understanding of the law is irrelevant.

That seems to me to be the legal answer. The policy answer will depend on the weight to be given to finality in litigation as against the need to ensure that those who enforce the law obey the law, particularly in relation to people – prisoners – who are otherwise without remedy against institutional abuse of power. Their vulnerability became entrenched at a time when the final appeal court – the Privy Council – was, as a matter of practicality, out of their reach. I think the policy answer will be consistent with the legal answer, that retrospective effect of Booth will be acknowledged, and that compensation should be paid. There will still be arguments about whether compensation can be given without discriminating in favour of those prisoners whose offences did not have victims, because of the Prisoners’ and Victims’ Claims Act 2005.

Good to get that settled?

Ah yes, another report on the Bain case. I have added some comments to an earlier post (15 December 2012).

Extended common purpose – correcting the common law on secondary liability

Well, interweb, if I’m going to do a post this year I had better get on with it.

Extended secondary liability has received attention on this site before, on Dec 22, 2011, and Dec 18, 2006.

The Privy Council, in a judgment delivered jointly with the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, has corrected a long-standing (30 years) error in the law of this form of liability: R v Jogee [2016] UKSC 8 (18 February 2016).

The change, reverting to what had been the correct position, is that a secondary party must always intend that the offence be committed. The error had happened when the Privy Council gave judgment in Chan Wing-Siu [1985] AC 168. The Board had held that under the extended form of secondary liability intention is not required, but instead only foresight that commission of the offence is a probable consequence of the prosecution of an unlawful common purpose.

This is explained extremely clearly by Francis FitzGibbon in the London Review of Books, Vol 38, No 5, 3 March 2016.

Embarrassingly, the blame for all this is attributed to the then Sir Robin Cooke (later, Lord Cooke), who delivered the Board’s judgment in Chan Wing-Siu. If one is to place the blame in that way, one must assume that the other members of that Board were asleep: Lord Keith of Kinkel, Lord Bridge of Harwich, Lord Brandon of Oakbrook, and Lord Templeman. None of them tugged at Sir Robin’s sleeve and said “hang on a minute mate” (or whatever the equivalent English expression was).

From where did Sir Robin get his misunderstanding of the common law? As a New Zealand judge he would have been familiar with our s 66(2) of the Crimes Act 1961, which is the provision for this form of liability. An early interpretation of the (not materially different) predecessor of this – s 90(2) of the Crimes Act 1908 – was that the secondary party had to intend the commission of the foreseen offence: R v Malcolm [1951] NZLR 470, 485 line 33 (CA) where there is only a brief comment “Subsection 2 of s 90 requires a common purpose” [emphasis added]. However that was criticised in an influential textbook, Criminal Law and Practice in New Zealand (2nd ed FB Adams, 1971) at para 664, where it was said that “the whole point of s 66(2) [is] that something is done which may have gone beyond the common primary purpose.”

So, contrary to Malcolm, s 66(2) has subsequently (at least) been understood to mean that the secondary participant need not intend the commission of the offence, but that only foresight of it as a probable consequence of pursuit of the common purpose is required.

Regardless of why the mistake may have been made and why it had gone unnoticed for decades, the common law is now that intention is required. Foresight of a risk is evidence of intention, not a substitute for it. Can a provision like s 66(2) be interpreted consistently with that? I think it can. A “common intention to prosecute any unlawful purpose, and to assist each other therein” refers to a range of intended offences. Otherwise, the subsection would have said “common intention to commit an offence”. The phrase “known to be a probable consequence of the prosecution of the common purpose” functions to keep liability within the bounds of what was intended.

[Update: The Supreme Court has declined to reinterpret s 66(2) to bring it into line with Jogee: Uhrle v R [2016] NZSC 64 (13 June 2016).]

[Another update: The High Court of Australia has refused to revise the common law insofar as it applies in Australian jurisdictions, and will not bring it into line with Jogee: Miller v The Queen [2016] HCA 30 (24 August 2016).]