Inchoate offences and the scope of mens rea

We have already noted the Supreme Court’s decision in L v R (see blog for 3 April 2006), in which the mental elements of an attempt to commit an offence that could be committed recklessly were held to include the same recklessness. Yesterday, the House of Lords reached a different conclusion in R v Saik [2006] UKHL 18 (3 May 2006), which concerned the statutory definition of “conspiracy”. Both attempts and conspiracies are what is called inchoate offences: they are, in this sense, uncompleted substantive offences.

It is interesting to observe that legislatures can differ on what sort of behaviour, preliminary to the commission of a substantive offence, they consider appropriate to criminalise, and they can also differ on how precisely they wish to indicate the scope of proscribed behaviour.

Under English law, money laundering (the relevant substantive offence in Saik) can be committed knowingly, or by having reasonable grounds to suspect, in relation to the fact that the money or property is the proceeds of criminal conduct. The New Zealand definition of money laundering is broadly similar in these respects; both the Crimes Act 1961 and the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 contain laundering offences, and the relevant state of mind is knowing, believing, or being reckless as to the money or property being proceeds of a serious offence.

There is, obviously, a difference, in that the English provision encompasses having reasonable grounds to suspect, whereas in New Zealand the scope does not extend beyond recklessness.

The material difference for present purposes is in the definitions of the inchoate offences. The English statutory conspiracy is defined in s 1(1) and (2) of the Criminal Law Act 1977[UK], and, significantly, s 1(2), as interpreted in Saik, requires that, in relation to essential circumstances that need not be known for liability for the full offence, the accused must intend or know of them for liability to arise for the conspiracy. Thus, for conspiring to launder property, where the full offence does not require knowledge that the property is proceeds of criminal conduct (reasonable grounds to suspect being sufficient), the consequence of the Saik interpretation of s 1(2) is that conspiring to launder property requires proof that the accused knew or believed that the property was proceeds of criminal conduct.

In New Zealand, the crime of attempting to commit an offence is defined in s 72 of the Crimes Act 1961, which requires an “intent to commit an offence”. In L v R this was interpreted to mean, for attempted sexual violation, intention to penetrate (or, in the peculiar circumstances of that case, an intention that penetration should occur), and recklessness as to whether the victim consented. The policy applied in L has thus, from this point of view, resulted in expansion of the meaning of “intent” in s 72.

In summary, the UK Parliament defined conspiracy narrowly, and the Court declined to interpret the definition in a way that would have extended it, whereas the New Zealand Parliament defined attempt without specifying whether it should be construed widely or narrowly, and the Court chose a wide interpretation.

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Thou art far more fair than she …

Is Australian criminal law really fairer than New Zealand’s? In Moloney v New Zealand [2006] FCA 438 (21 April 2006) (blogged here on 1 May 2006), Madgwick J thought it is. It is arguable that his approach to this matter was wrong. He should have used as fundamental a point that he did note, namely that since New Zealand, like Australia, is a party to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and, further to what he noted, that since New Zealand, unlike Australia, has the accused’s right to a fair trial included in a Bill of Rights, courts in New Zealand are unlikely to tolerate an unfair trial.

The question would then have been, would New Zealand judges be likely to interpret their rules of evidence in a way that results in unfairness to the accused?

It is not a matter of comparing the rules in Australia with those in New Zealand, as Madgwick J did, because it is the result of the application of the rules that is critical. The real question in Moloney was, does the right to a fair trial in New Zealand have overriding importance?

I have argued that it does: see “The Accused’s Right to a Fair Trial: Absolute or Limitable?” [2005] New Zealand Law Review 217. I must acknowledge, however, that the mere fact that the eponymous question has to be asked indicates that in New Zealand there has been some doubt over whether the accused’s right to a fair trial overrides other rights and interests. My conclusion in that article was that the majority of senior New Zealand judges appear to accept the absolute view of the accused’s right to a fair trial. Concern over the status of trial fairness in New Zealand should focus on the grounds on which judges disagree over that.

In Moloney, Madgwick J gave two main reasons for concluding that trials of the relevant charges, allegations of historical sexual misconduct going back 22 to 31 years, on balance would be unlikely to be conducted fairly in New Zealand, if fairness is assessed by Australian standards. Each reason has its weaknesses.

The first reason concerned judicial warnings to the jury about the reasons that evidence by complainants about events that are allegedly remembered after so long a time may be unreliable, and reasons why the accused may be disadvantaged in challenging such allegations. In Australia such warnings, in cases of delay of this length, are apparently mandatory. That, at least, was the view of Madgwick J, and we may for present purposes assume that he was correct on this point. In New Zealand they are discretionary. What, then, is the significance of this difference?

As suggested above, the question should have been, would New Zealand judges be likely to decline to warn the jury about those matters in the circumstances of these cases? And, if they did not give the warning, would convictions be likely to be upheld on appeal; that is, would the Court of Appeal recognise that failure to give the warning amounted to a substantial miscarriage of justice?

The current state of development of the law in New Zealand is such that, while we may be reasonably sure that a trial judge would warn the jury, if he did not, we cannot be sure that an appellate court would regard that omission as a substantial miscarriage of justice. The problem of appellate recognition of substantial miscarriage of justice is not confined to New Zealand: the Privy Council not infrequently differs among its members on this. There is, therefore, reason for some unease on this score.

The second reason that Madgwick J gave was that in Australia the charges would be heard at separate trials, because the evidence of each complainant was only relevant to the allegations made by that complainant, whereas it seemed that in New Zealand a court would be likely to regard the evidence of some complainants as corroborative of the evidence of others, so that some joinder of trials may occur. This area of the law of evidence concerns what is usually called “similar fact” evidence. Essentially, where different complainants make similar allegations, one tends to increase the likelihood that another is true, unless there was evidence that they had colluded to concoct falsely similar stories. The proper focus of similar fact evidence, where it is admissible, is on the weight to be given to the evidence of the complainant whose allegations are being decided. The great danger of this evidence is that juries will go straight to a conclusion that the accused is the kind of person who does this sort of thing, so he must be guilty. In other words, the error would be to convict the accused for what is now alleged because of what he is said to have done before, rather than because this complainant is believable.

The law about similar facts has been problematic everywhere. This has often been because its admissibility has been linked to the criterion of whether the probative value of the evidence outweighs its illegitimately prejudicial effect. I have discussed this in “Probative value, illegitimate prejudice and the accused’s right to a fair trial” (2005) 29 Crim LJ 8. In Moloney, Madgwick J considered that in Australia the similar fact evidence would not be admissible. Assuming that to be so, would it be admissible in New Zealand? A leading case on this is R v Holtz. I have discussed this case in Misuse of Drugs, para 306, as follows:

“There could appear to be some withdrawal from the requirement of hallmark or striking similarity in R v Holtz [2003] 1 NZLR 667; (2002) 20 CRNZ 14 (CA). But whether that is so, and if so, whether it is to be taken as a generally applicable modification of the law, may be doubted. The Court observed at para 35 that it is wrong to look for principles of admissibility applicable to all evidence of past conduct in all circumstances. Identity was disputed in relation to some of the allegedly similar facts, and at para 43 the Court merely required a credible strand of circumstantial evidence pointing to the accused as the offender. However, a more rigorous requirement appeared at para 47, where it was stated that the evidence must be truly probative and cogent. In full, this crucial paragraph reads as follows:

“[47] The care with which evidence of similar acts is scrutinised is justified because of the prejudice that inevitably arises from the risk of guilt being improperly inferred from mere propensity or disposition evidenced by previous bad conduct. But, where the evidence is truly probative and cogent, admission is appropriate so long as the circumstances are such that, while allowing the probative value of the evidence to be availed of, the risk of improper use can be avoided by appropriate directions to the jury.”

“It should be noted here that the requirement is that the risk of improper use of the evidence can be avoided, not just reduced to a level where it is outweighed by the probative value of the evidence.”

If this criterion is applied strictly the “trial according to law” aspect of the right to a fair trial would be protected. Unfortunately, it cannot be said for certain, at present, that the “avoiding” of improper use of the evidence would be required, instead of merely the risk of improper use being “outweighed” by the probative value of the evidence. Again, on this point, one cannot be sure that judges in New Zealand would interpret this rule of evidence in a way that would ensure the dominance of the accused’s right to a fair trial.

A difference of reasonable minds

Fairness can be a very difficult matter to agree on, as is demonstrated in cases where judges have differed among themselves: see, for illustrations, blog entries for 10 October 2004, 10 July 2005, 28 August 2005, 9 December 2005 and 7 March 2006. Applications to extradite suspects to other jurisdictions where fairness of trial may be questioned give rise to the issue of what is an acceptable risk of unfair trial in the foreign court. In Bagdanavicius [2005] UKHL 38 (blogged 26 May 2005) it was held that extradition must be refused if there are “substantial grounds” for believing there to be “a real risk” of mistreatment in the foreign jurisdiction.

In Moloney v New Zealand [2006] FCA 438 (21 April 2006) the Federal Court of Australia (Madgwick J) held (para 120) that the burden, on appeal, was on the defendants (those resisting extradition) to show there would probably be an injustice in extradition. This might (it is difficult to say, as the point is not discussed by Madgwick J) be an easier standard to satisfy than that required by the House of Lords in Bagdanavicius.

That aside, Moloney points to some areas in New Zealand criminal law that are not self-evidently fair. Diplomatically, Madgwick J acknowledges (para 108) that “reasonable minds may and do differ on what constitute the incidents of a fair trial”, so that, in effect, this is a difference between friends. No insult being intended, the Federal Court held that, judged as it must be by the standards of Australian law (Bannister v New Zealand (1999) 86 FCR 417), trial of the charges in New Zealand would probably be unfair.

Moloney holds that New Zealand criminal law falls short of the Australian standard of fairness in the following respects:

(1) In cases of historical allegations, in Australia judges must warn the jury about the dangers inherent in accepting the evidence of complainants (this is called the direction in Longman v R (1989) 168 CLR 79 (HCA)), whereas the New Zealand Court of Appeal has rejected the mandatory requirement of a warning, preferring to leave the need for a warning as a matter for the judge to decide: R v M 13/11/95, CA187/95. This was held to be the factor that made the difference between Australian and New Zealand law sufficiently serious to prevent extradition. Australian courts regard the Longman direction as being “a vital requirement for a just trial in a case of long delay” (para 109). But there were other factors too.

(2) Whereas in Australian law it is clear that the charges would have to be heard separately, because similar fact evidence would be inadmissible, this was not so clear in New Zealand law (citing R v Holtz [2003] 1 NZLR 667, 675 (CA)). While this uncertainty made this factor less than decisive, it was, nevertheless, “a circumstance exacerbating the disabilities” caused to the defence and arising from the delay (paras 117, 123).

(3) Australia has rejected the use of representative charges (S v R (1989) 168 CLR 266 and KBT v R (1997) 191 CLR 417 (HCA)), whereas they are acceptable in New Zealand: para 110, quoting R v Accused [1993] 1 NZLR 385, 389 (CA). The objections to representative charges concern vagueness as to when the offence for which the accused is convicted occurred, and what facts were accepted as proof of it.

There was, in summary, between Australia and New Zealand “a fundamental difference as to the content of an effective right to a fair hearing, such right being recognised … as a basic human right” (para 113).

Apologists for New Zealand law might argue that, vague though the law may be, everything would turn out alright in the end, as appellate courts can take an overview and correct unfairness. Such wooliness is, indeed, behind the development of the law to this unsatisfactory state. Disturbingly, New Zealand has been led into this difference of “reasonable minds” by some of our foremost judges: participants in New Zealand Court of Appeal decisions cited in Moloney include Cooke P (now, Lord Cooke), Gault P, Richardson J (subsequently P), Casey, Hardie Boys, and Keith JJ. In this area, rules are preferable to discretions, and precision must be pushed as far as it will go.

Having said that, it should be acknowledged that a face-saving appeal against Madgwick J’s decision in Moloney could result in a different view of New Zealand’s approach to fairness. It could be held that Madgwick J was wrong to consider that in Australia a warning was inevitable in the circumstances of the case(s), citing Doggett v R (2001) 182 ALR 1 (HCA), where McHugh J dissented in holding that no warning was required in that case, as an illustration of how the need for a warning can be controversial. That would make the position on warnings as uncertain in Australia as it seems to be in New Zealand. Further, while the risk of evidence of other complainants being admissible on a similar fact basis seems to be high in New Zealand, it cannot be discounted in Australia either, because the merits of the case (correctly recognised as not relevant to the extradition decision) may give other complaints high probative value as corroboration. Such corroboration would, in turn, reduce the need for a warning in Australian law. The result could be that New Zealand’s law on fairness is not significantly different from Australia’s.

That, however, could be said to mean that the law on fair trials is equally unsatisfactory in each country.