Trial by unjust law

Today’s decision by our Supreme Court, Hansen v R [2007] NZSC 7 (20 February 2007), holds that some trials are conducted under law that is an unjustifiable limitation on the presumption of innocence.

The implications of this are considerable. Do such trials contravene the accused’s right to a fair trial, which is an absolute right, so that convictions obtained at them cannot be upheld?

Should Parliament reform the impugned law, s 6(6) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, so that it does not place a legal burden of proof on the accused?

The foundation of Hansen is a finding by all 5 members of the Court that the expression “until the contrary is proved” can not mean “until a reasonable doubt is raised”. It is pointless, now, to dispute that, although in England and Wales that meaning is accepted.

The absence of a meaning that did not involve more than a justifiable limitation on the right to be presumed innocent meant that the Court had to apply the unjustifiable limitation (namely, that the accused had to prove, on the balance of probabilities, lack of intent to supply a drug).

Parliament had been assured by the Attorney-General in 2005, when it revised the offending provision, that there was no unjustified limitation of the accused’s rights. The Supreme Court has now decided that that assurance was wrong (although Blanchard J dissented on this point).

Justice McGrath put the position in this way:

“[254] Articulating that reasoning serves the important function of bringing to theattention of the executive branch of government that the court is of the view thatthere is a measure on the statute book which infringes protected rights and freedoms,which the court has decided is not a justified limitation. It is then for the other branches of government to consider how to respond to the court’s finding. Whilethey are under no obligation to change the law and remedy the inconsistency, it is areasonable constitutional expectation that there will be a reappraisal of the objectivesof the particular measure, and of the means by which they were implemented in thelegislation, in light of the finding of inconsistency with these fundamental rights andfreedoms concerning which there is general consensus in New Zealand society andthere are international obligations to affirm.”

None of the judges in Hansen considered whether trials where the offending provision applies will necessarily be unfair. One would expect that, in most cases, the provision will have little scope for real effect on the accused’s risk of conviction. It is only in borderline cases, where the accused has possession of a quantity of drug close to that at which he is presumed, by this provision, to have it for supply, that there is a risk that he will be found guilty although the jury was not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that he had that purpose. He could then, perhaps, argue that the proceedings were biased against him, and that this bias, albeit required by law, was unjustifiable.

It is now unlikely that the prosecution will rely on the statutory presumption, in its present form,
where the amount of drug is close to the presumptive level. It is clear that the matter needs to be addressed by Parliament.

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