A recanting eyewitness

R v Devine [2008] SCC 36 (19 June 2008), routine in the sense that it does not decide new law, is a case that highlights the common law approach to the admissibility of a witness’s prior inconsistent statement as evidence of its truth. I say “common law”, meaning Canadian common law, but the approach will be familiar to anyone who has read this far. The case applies law stated in two cases I have noted previously: R v Khelawan, 15 December 2006, and R v Couture, 19 June 2007.

When the prior statement is sought to be used as evidence of its truth, it comes within the common law definition of hearsay. If a recognised specific exception does not apply to it, it can only be admissible if it qualifies under what in Canada is called the “principled approach” or “principled exception”, and what in other jurisdictions may be called the residual exception.

The principled or residual exception applies criteria that focus on two points: is it necessary, in the sense that there is no direct way of presenting the evidence, and if so, are there sufficient means of assuring that it is reliable? Where the witness is available for cross-examination at trial, as was the case in Devine, this reliability criterion will easily be met.

Does this mean that, where the witness is available for cross-examination, the principled exception will almost inevitably permit the admission of a prior inconsistent statement? Yes it seems to, but there is also the back-stop protection of the discretion to exclude evidence where its illegitimate prejudice “outweighs” (a mis-description of the test but so well established that its necessary meaning departs from its verbal formulation) its probative value.

In New Zealand the Evidence Act 2006 now excludes from the definition of hearsay out of court statements by witnesses who give evidence and who are able to be cross-examined. There are indications in dicta in Devine at 27 that if a witness claimed not to remember or refused to answer questions on relevant topics she would not be regarded as available for cross-examination. That is consistent with the Evidence Act 2006 s 4 definition of “witness” as a person “who gives evidence and is able to be cross-examined”. Prior inconsistent statements of witnesses who are able to be cross-examined are admissible for their truth, subject to the general exclusion provision, s 8. The statutory formulation of this (a revision of the common law “weighing” exercise) emphasises the right of the defendant to offer an effective defence. There are thus two reasons for excluding a prior statement if the person in the witness box refuses to answer or claims to have forgotten material points: the person is not able to be cross-examined and so is no longer a witness, and, if the person remains a witness, the right of the defendant to offer an effective defence is very likely to be breached.

In Devine the prosecution sought, successfully, to use a prior inconsistent statement by its own witness. There are, of course, limitations on the right of a party to challenge the evidence of its own witnesses. In this situation, hostility by the witness needs to be shown. Although not treated as a separate topic in this case, it is clear that the witness was being hostile: she gave evidence that the judge rejected about the source of her information in the prior statement identifying the accused as the person who has assaulted her companion (claiming in effect that it was hearsay and not her own observation); the judge found that she said this in an effort to avoid repeating the identification. In New Zealand s 4 of the Evidence Act 2006 defines “hostile” in this situation to require, in addition to inconsistency, “an intention to be unhelpful to the party who called the witness”. If that is established, the judge may give permission under s 94 to the caller to cross-examine, to an extent that the judge authorises.

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