Reverse onus in the House of Lords

While we in New Zealand await our Supreme Court’s decision in Hansen v R, which will decide the standard of proof placed on the accused by reverse onus provisions in the light of human rights legislation, we note that the House of Lords now finds the reading down of reverse onus provisions a relatively routine matter: O v Crown Court at Harrow [2006] UKHL 42 (26 July 2006).

Here, the House of Lords was concerned with the meaning of “is satisfied” in a provision that required refusal of bail unless the court was satisfied that exceptional circumstances existed (s 25 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994[UK]):

“(1) A person who in any proceedings has been charged with or convicted of an offence to which this section applies in circumstances to which it applies shall be granted bail in those proceedings only if the court or, as the case may be, the constable considering the grant of bail is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances which justify it.”

Two approaches to this were considered in the Court of Appeal. Kennedy LJ thought “satisfied” means “considers” and that the question is a matter of judgment for the court, not involving any particular standard of proof. Hooper J, on the other hand, thought that “satisfied” here puts the burden on the bail applicant, and is therefore inconsistent with the ECHR, so s 25 has to be “read down” to place only an evidentiary burden on the bail applicant.

Lords Nicholls and Hutton, and Lady Hale, agreed with Lord Brown; Lord Carswell did too, but examined the difference in interpretation in more detail. He referred, rather obliquely, to Re McClean (blogged here 7 July 2005) in which it was decided, inconsistemtly with the present case, that doubts must be resloved against the prisoner. He held that “satisfied” in s 25 means more than just an exercise of judgment, and that it connotes a burden or presumption, so s 25 has to be read down to comply with convention rights. Thus, Lord Carswell agreed with Hooper J’s approach.

Lord Brown, delivering the leading speech, had a “mild preference” for Hooper J’s approach (para 35). He pointed out that in most cases the decision will be clear cut and that the burden of proof will not assume any relevance. Occasionally, however, the court will be left unsure, and in these cases the default position should be that bail should be granted, and s 25 should be read down to make that plain.

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