How satisfying was that!

The High Court of Australia has, this week, held that the requirement that a judge be “satisfied” of something (here, the appropriateness of revoking a non-parole period, which, in this case, would mean no possibility of release on a life sentence), does not entail a standard of decision analogous to a standard of proof: Leach v R [2007] HCA 3 (6 February 2007).

I have previously noted here some discussion over whether a standard of decision is applicable to requirements like the court having to be “satisfied”. I use the expression “standard of decision” to acknowledge that the decision is a matter of judgment, based on facts, and that those facts will have been determined to a standard appropriate to their context. Indeed, in Leach, the High Court of Australia distinguished between the factual matters on which the decision had to be based, these having to be proved beyond reasonable doubt, and the judgment on those facts whereby the court, having to be “satisfied” was exercising a judgment not amenable to a standard. See, in particular, para 47 of the joint judgment:

“…. The concept of a standard of proof, like the related concept of onus of proof, is apposite to the resolution of disputed questions of fact in issue in the litigation. Both onus and standard of proof concern the adducing of evidence at trial and the determination of which of the facts in issue are established by that evidence[citing Cross on Evidence, 7th Aust ed (2004) at [7005]; Stone, “Burden of Proof and the Judicial Process: A Commentary on Joseph Constantine Steamship Ltd v Imperial Smelting Corporation Ltd“, (1944) 60 Law Quarterly Review 262]. Standard of proof is not a concept that is apposite to the resolution of a contested question of judgment of the kind required by [the relevant section], any more than it is apposite to the resolution of a disputed question of law.”

In contrast, the House of Lords in O v Crown Court at Harrow (blogged 31 July 2006) – not mentioned in Leach – held that in the context considered there, whether release on bail was appropriate, “satisfied” meant more than an exercise of judgment, and connoted a burden or presumption.

There is plenty of scope for discussion of this point, as requirements that a court be “satisfied” of something are common. In the Sentencing Act 2002[NZ], for example, s 24(2)(b) and s 86(2) apply this requirement to determination of facts at sentencing, and to deciding whether an extended non-parole period is appropriate, respectively.

Obviously, decisions in some contexts will be more important than in others, so the requirement that a judge be “satisfied” of a critical matter needs to accommodate that. This does not, however, mean that the standard of satisfaction, if there is a standard, will vary; instead, the weight of the considerations needed to meet the standard could be regarded as the variables. An analogous point was made in relation to “the balance of probabilities” in Sharma v DPP and others (Trinidad and Tobago) (blogged 11 December 2006).

Refusals to attach a standard to the requirement that the judge be “satisfied” are, no doubt, put on the policy basis that finality in litigation is desirable. Unless a lower court has taken into account irrelevant matters, or failed to consider relevant matters, or has been plainly in error, its decision on a discretionary matter should be final. On the other hand, where a decision concerns matters that are the subject of human rights, international trends are towards interpreting “satisfied” as carrying a standard of beyond reasonable doubt.

See also my discussion of proof and risk in relation to another House of Lords decision not cited
in Leachre McClean, 19 July 2005.

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