Errors at trial

Complaints about the quality of their legal representation are sometimes made by people who are convicted at trial. These complaints rarely succeed in achieving, on appeal, the grant of a new trial. Occasionally, however, counsel who acted at trial may provide the appellate court with sufficient information to support a conclusion that there had been a significant error at trial. This occurred in relation to one of the appeals in Teeluck v The State (Trinidad and Tobago) [2005] UKPC 14 (23 March 2005).

Interestingly, the focus is not on the extent to which the quality of the legal representation at trial fell below professional standards, although the court may well (and here, did) comment on that. Rather, the focus is on the impact which the error(s) of counsel had on the trial and verdict (para 39). On appeal, the issue is whether the verdict of a reasonable jury would inevitably have been the same if the error(s) had not occurred (para 40).

This is not to say that this is always the test to determine when mistakes have deprived the accused of a fair trial. Loss of a fair chance of an acquittal is indeed a sufficient, but not a necessary, condition for a finding that the trial was unfair. As the Privy Council held in Randall v R [2002] UKPC 19 (16 April 2002), para 28:

“There will come a point where the departure from good practice is so gross, or so persistent, or so prejudicial, or so irremediable that an appellate court will have no choice but to condemn a trial as unfair and quash a conviction as unsafe, however strong the grounds for believing the defendant to be guilty. The right to a fair trial is to be enjoyed by the guilty as well as the innocent, for a defendant is presumed to be innocent until proved to be otherwise in a fairly conducted trial.”

Teeluck concerns the consequence of the absence of the mandatory direction on good character evidence. Once good character has been raised by the defence, the direction must be given, but a mere assertion of absence of criminal convictions is of itself insufficient to raise the issue. New Zealand law is to the same effect: R v Falealili [1996] 3 NZLR 664 (CA).

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