Hidden badness

An attack by an accused on the character of a prosecution witness, especially a complainant, may result in the court being informed of the accused’s bad character. In DS v HM Advocate [2007] UKPC D1 (22 May 2007) the accused challenged the validity of Scottish legislation to this effect, on the basis that it infringed his right to a fair trial.

Lord Hope noted that the accused’s right to a fair trial is absolute:

“17. … The Convention right that the appellant invokes is his right to a fair trial. This was described in Salabiaku v France (1988) 13 EHRR 379, para 28, as a fundamental principle of law. In Doorson v The Netherlands (1996) 22 EHRR 330, 358, para 67 the Court said that its task was to ascertain whether the proceedings as a whole were fair. In Dyer v Watson, 2002 SC (PC) 89, 113, I drew attention to the fact that a distinction must be made between those rights which are said by the Convention to be absolute and unqualified and those which are expressly qualified by provisions which permit them to be interfered with in certain circumstances. I said that the overriding right guaranteed by article 6(1) was a fundamental right which did not admit of any balancing exercise, and that the public interest could never be invoked to deny that right to anybody in any circumstances: see also Montgomery v HM Advocate, 2001 SC (PC) 1, pp 27E, 29F-G; Brown v Stott, 2001 SC (PC) 43, pp 60B 74B. The fundamental nature of the right to a fair trial has been stressed repeatedly in subsequent cases both in the Judicial Committee and in the House of Lords: R v Forbes [2001] 1 AC 473, para 24; Porter v Magill [2002] 2 AC 357, para 87; Millar v Dickson, 2002 SC (PC) 30, para 52; Mills v HM Advocate, 2003 SC (PC) 1, para 12; Sinclair v HM Advocate, 2005 SC (PC) 28, para 37. The law-making powers of the Scottish Parliament do not permit it to pass laws which will deny an accused a fair trial.”

Under the relevant legislation, in the circumstances that arose in this case, it was for the accused to show that “the interests of justice” favoured non-disclosure of his prior conviction. As to this phrase, Lord Hope said:

“49. … the words “the interests of justice” should be read, in this context, as directed primarily to the accused’s right to a fair trial. This issue should be addressed in the light of what I have already said about the reasons why previous convictions for sexual offences or an offence in which a substantial sexual element was present may be relevant. The objection should be tested in the light of what use may properly be made of the conviction with regard to the accused’s propensity to commit the offence charged, and what use may properly be made of it with regard to his credibility if he were to give evidence or has made exculpatory statements before trial. The test needs to be exacting in proceedings on indictment, in view of the risk that the jury may attach a significance to the conviction which, due to its age or other factors, it cannot properly bear.”

Whether juries are likely to treat the accused’s previous convictions correctly is a matter that we have seen commented on in R v Becouarn [2005] UKHL 55 (blogged 5 August 2005), not cited in the present case, where a jury study was quoted. However, in DS the Privy Council took a robust approach to this point. Lord Rodger, with whom all the other members of the Board agreed, said:

“85 … [the section allowing the accused’s conviction to be revealed, once he had attacked the complainant’s character] would provide an element of parity or balance in the treatment of the two sides by giving the jury an opportunity, when considering their verdict, to have regard also to what the accused had done on other occasions. The balance between the two sides is not perfect: it is tilted in the accused’s favour since the jury only get to know about his previous criminal sexual misbehaviour. Any other behaviour or any other aspects of his character or any condition or predisposition are not revealed.”

Baroness Hale also upheld the fairness of the legislative scheme:

“94 There is nothing intrinsically unfair in a court hearing evidence of an accused person’s character and conduct, provided that it is relevant to something which the court has to decide. Our historic reluctance to trust the jury with this information arises from the fear that they may give it more weight than it deserves or regard it as proving that which it does not prove. The answer to that does not have to be to withhold it from them; they can be given clear and careful directions about how to use it.”

Lord Brown summarised the accused’s argument and answered it as follows:

“102 … having won the initial ruling that the evidence [of the complainant’s bad character] is required to enable him to defend himself properly, he submits that no inhibition should thereafter be put in his path; he should not be subjected to the pressure of having to choose between two evils: either forgoing the opportunity to advance his defence properly or allowing the jury to learn of his previous convictions of which otherwise they would have remained in ignorance.

“103 Plausible and beguiling though at first blush this argument may appear, it is to my mind founded upon a central fallacy. The long and the short of it is that the accused has no fundamental right to keep his past convictions from the jury. There is nothing intrinsically unfair or inappropriate in putting these into evidence and, indeed, in doing so not merely on the limited basis that they go only to the accused’s credibility (the fiction which to my mind disfigured the administration of criminal justice in England and Wales for far too long, now at last ended by the Criminal Justice Act 2003—see particularly sections 101(1)(d) and 103(1)(a)) but on the wider ground that they bear also on the accused’s propensity to commit offences of the kind with which he is charged.”

Great reliance is placed on the ability of the trial judge correctly to warn the jury about the use to which they may put the evidence of the accused’s bad prior conduct, and great reliance is also placed on the ability of juries to follow such directions. This latter reliance appears to be misplaced in the light of the jury study cited in Becouarn, above. Should decisions about the fairness of trials rest on legal assumptions that may not be justified in fact?

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