Differences in principle and pragmatism

Appellate judges often disagree over whether an error at trial caused a substantial miscarriage of justice. Finding himself in a minority of one in Bounds v R [2006] HCA 39 (20 July 2006), Kirby J observed, para 85:

Conclusion: a basic error: I accept that different conclusions are available on this issue. The nature of the controversy and the breadth of the language of the ‘proviso’ virtually assures the existence of differences of judicial views. Such differences may reflect the diverse values that judges accord to considerations of principle and pragmatism, as they regard them. Those differences appear in many cases in this Court concerned with the ‘proviso’ … [citing Green v The Queen (1971) 126 CLR 28 at 31; Jones v The Queen (1997) 191 CLR 439; Darkan v The Queen [2006] HCA 34]. They are also reflected in the foregoing differences of opinion in the United States Supreme Court [ie Lane v US 747 US 438 (1986)].”

It seems likely that, on the key point in Bounds, the majority were correct. A second count had been wrongly included in an indictment. The error was that the second offence was purely summary, not triable on indictment. Nevertheless, evidence of its commission would probably have been admissible as similar fact evidence in respect of the only count that should have been in the indictment. The majority (Gleeson CJ, Hayne, Callinan and Crennan JJ) at para 26 held

“… The evidence admitted at the appellant’s trial about the downloading of the images the subject of count 2 was very limited. It would have been admissible on the trial of an indictment alleging only count 1.”

Kirby J did not think this was so (para 100):

“Nor do I consider that the tender of such material would have been permitted in a trial if that trial had been limited to the indictable offence of possession of child pornography. A judge guarding the fairness of the conduct of such a trial would be properly careful to restrict extraneous, and possibly prejudicial, evidence. By impermissibly charging the two offences in the one indictment, an inter-mixture necessarily occurred. Descriptions or conceptions of the contents of the images became inevitable. It is that inter-mixture, before the jury, that presents the risk of a substantial miscarriage of justice. It is that risk that withholds the application of the ‘proviso’.”

Apart from the difference of opinion on that issue, Kirby J also differed from the majority on whether the jurisdictional error was, of itself, sufficient to prevent application of the proviso without examination of issues relating to the conduct of the trial. He reasoned (paras 87-88) that the Western Australia legislature had carefully separated the jurisdictions and that the community and the accused are therefore entitled to a trial that conforms to the law and is without jurisdictional flaw.

The majority, however, did focus on what happened at the trial of the count that was properly before the jury (para 13-30). Their conclusion on the trial conduct contrasts with that of Kirby J, who held, para 96:

“… The impermissible inclusion of the second count in the indictment deprived the appellant of a trial that was free from any reference to this extraneous factor [images of bestiality]. It deprived him of the chance of avoiding this added complication in his trial. Specifically, it deprived him of the forensic choices that the separate trial of the offences referred to in the two counts would have entailed.”

It is not clear what those “forensic choices” were, even on the basis that the evidence was not (as Kirby J held) admissible as similar fact. Even the mere fact that these images (whatever they might have depicted) were downloaded at a particular time seems to have been relevant to whether the images which were the subject of count 1 were downloaded by the accused (see majority judgment, para 26).

This case is interesting for its references to other cases, including English and United States decisions, where differences of opinion have occurred over how to decide whether an error has caused a trial to be unfair. It is now 99 years since England enacted what has been almost universally adopted as the “proviso”, and one would have thought that, by now, appellate judges would have worked out a rational approach to its application, thereby promoting uniformity of result and minimising disagreements. My own view is that the basic problem is that judges have not got to grips with the meaning of the essential requirement of a fair trial. Until judges learn to define the characteristics of trial fairness and to apply them rationally, vagueness over the meaning of “substantial miscarriage of justice” will continue to make the results of appeals difficult to predict.

If one were to apply my own “Fair Trial Analysis”, one would identify the following issues in Bounds. Since a fair trial is one where the law is accurately applied to facts determined without bias, the first question is, what errors of law occurred? It was common ground that count 2 should not have been in the indictment. Was the admission of evidence relevant to that count an error? This requires examination of the admissibility of the evidence as similar fact in relation to count 1. The judges in Bounds did not undertake this inquiry in detail, they simply announced their conclusions, and, as noted, Kirby J dissented on this. If it is correct that the evidence was admissible as similar fact, then the question is whether the judge’s direction to the jury on that topic was adequate to ensure that the evidence was not misused. If the evidence was not admissible as similar fact, then the question is whether the jury were adequately warned to ignore it in relation to count 1. The jury direction was not revealed in the judgments in Bounds. Then, in relation to the unbiased determination of the facts, the appellate court should ask whether the similar fact evidence – even if it was admissible – could have, by reason of its content, prejudiced the rational assessment of the other evidence. This point is addressed in Bounds, but again it was a point of difference. Kirby J thought that it could have caused prejudice, simply because of the risk of an averse reaction by any juror to the mere mention of bestiality. The majority, however, considered that the mention of bestiality (the jury were not shown any images) was of peripheral concern and would not have caused illegitimate prejudice. At the heart of this difference of judicial opinion is the extent to which it should be acknowledged that jurors may not approach their task rationally. This was mentioned as recently as the 19th of this month by the House of Lords in R v Coutts (blogged 21 July 2006), where Lord Bingham (with whom the others agreed), citing a High Court of Australia case, Gilbert v R (2000), said at para 20 that the jury room may not be a place of undeviating intellectual and logical rigour. Coutts and Bounds are cases that complement each other: in Coutts the concern was failure to include an offence in the indictment, whereas in Bounds the concern was improper inclusion of a count. Should the court be less sensitive to the risk of jury prejudice in one than in the other?

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