Silence

Broad common law rights that have been included in the Bill of Rights are not limited to the extent of their definition in the Bill. For example, s 23(4) of NZBORA provides that everyone who is arrested or detained under any enactment for any offence or suspected offence has the right to refrain from making any statement. But if the person questioned has not been detained or arrested, the right to silence that exists at common law continues to apply.

In R v Turcotte [2005] SCC 50 (30 September 2005) the Supreme Court of Canada referred to the common law right to silence (para 41):

“41 Under the traditional common law rules, absent statutory compulsion, everyone has the right to be silent in the face of police questioning. This right to refuse to provide information or answer inquiries finds cogent and defining expression in Rothman v. The Queen, [1981] 1 S.C.R. 640, per Lamer J.:
“In Canada the right of a suspect not to say anything to the police … is merely the exercise by him of the general right enjoyed in this country by anyone to do whatever one pleases, saying what one pleases or choosing not to say certain things, unless obliged to do otherwise by law. It is because no law says that a suspect, save in certain circumstances, must say anything to the police that we say that he has the right to remain silent, which is a positive way of explaining that there is on his part no legal obligation to do otherwise. [Footnotes omitted; p. 683]””

Silence, however, can, albeit only rarely, be indicative of a consciousness of guilt. Other types of conduct that can indicate a consciousness of guilt are flight, resisting arrest, breach of bail, concealment (lying, giving a false name, using a disguise, disposing of evidence). Silence, however, is special insofar as the person has the right to be silent, and this right would be rendered illusory if it could be used to support an inference of guilt.

This was recognised in Turcotte, where examples of the limited circumstances in which the silence of an accused may be rendered relevant and probative were cited (para 49 – 50): where the defence claim the accused co-operated with the police, where the defence alleges that the police investigation was flawed, and where alibi is not disclosed before trial. Silence may also be relevant to credibility (not as proof of guilt) where two accuseds jointly tried blame each other for the offending, and one gives evidence at trial but had not made a statement to the police (para 48).

The right to silence is not waived merely because the suspect answers some questions (para 52). The fact that the accused was silent may be an inextricable part of the narrative, but, where it is, the judge must tell the jury that it is not evidence of guilt. Failure to do so can result in a new trial being ordered, as it was in Turcotte.

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