Common law rules and the proposed Evidence Code

The Supreme Court of Canada last week gave us a clue as to what approach to the admissibility of hearsay evidence in cases of conspiracy or pre-concert might be taken if the New Zealand Law Commission’s proposed Evidence Code is enacted: R v Mapara [2005] SCC 23 (27 April 2005).

Under the proposed Code, hearsay evidence is admissible in criminal proceedings if the circumstances in which it was obtained provide reasonable assurance that it is reliable: cl 19, and if procedural preliminaries to provide for the hearing of any admissibility challenge have been met.

The Code does not provide detail on the reliability criteria, so the question arises as to what will be the status under the Code of the common law rules that have developed to deal with the admissibility of hearsay statements of alleged co-conspirators, or of alleged participants in a joint enterprise (accomplices).

In Mapara, the Supreme Court of Canada held, 7 to 2, that the common law rules do provide sufficient assurance of reliability for there to be no need for a separate reliability decision (para 27), except in rare cases when the accused can point to evidence raising serious and real concerns as to reliability (para 30).

The relevant rules in Canada are similar to those that currently apply in New Zealand: there are three matters that have to be considered. The Canadian formulation of these, set out in R. v. Carter [1982] 1 S.C.R. 938, requires first, proof beyond reasonable doubt that there was a conspiracy or common design of the kind alleged; second, proof on the balance of probabilities and on non-hearsay evidence that the accused was a member of that conspiracy or common design; third, that the hearsay statement was made in furtherance of the conspiracy or common design.

It must be acknowledged that in New Zealand these rules have yet to achieve such clarity. There is a tendency to merge the first and second issues into a requirement that the accused be shown to have shared in a common purpose: eg R v Humphries [1982] 1 NZLR 353 (CA). Further, there is some wavering as to the standard of proof required for the second matter, some cases indicate that “reasonable evidence” is sufficient, while others require proof on the balance of probabilities. For the “reasonable evidence” requirement, see R v Karpavicius 12/9/00, Anderson J, HC Auckland T001037, para 17. For the balance of probabilities formulation see R v M 2/5/01, William Young J, HC Christchurch T14/01, at [51], although the Judge doubted that this was any more exacting, from the Crown’s point of view, than the unadorned reasonable evidence test, and on appeal the Court of Appeal took the same approach: R v M 11/7/01, CA135/01.

Given that the common law rules are aimed at preventing the admission of unreliable evidence, and that under the proposed Code the criterion for admission of hearsay evidence will be its reliability, we must ask to what extent will the existing rules survive the enactment of the Code. This is a general question, not simply confined to conspiracy or pre-concert cases.

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