Economy overwhelms the need for a fair trial

Here is another illustration of a divergence of opinion between appellate judges over whether to apply the proviso: R v Van [2009] SCC 22 (28 May 2009).

The proviso permits the court to dismiss an appeal if it considers that an error at trial was not substantial. The meaning of substantial is at the root of the difficulties.

The Supreme Court of Canada split 5 – 4. The minority, in a judgment delivered by newbie Cromwell J, did not discuss the law on the proviso. For the majority, LeBel J (with McLachlin CJ, Deschamps, Abella and Rothstein JJ) summarised the law (34 – 36) as requiring the Crown to establish that the error was of one of two kinds:

  1. An error that is harmless on its face or in its effect, in the sense of being trivial, peripheral, or actually favouring the defence. The idea here is that a jury need not be “perfectly” directed, as long as it is “properly” directed (citing Lamer CJ in R v Jacquard [1997] 1 SCR 314 at para 2). These errors are such that if they had not been made any reasonable judge or jury could not possibly have rendered a different verdict.
  2. An error that, although not minor or not without prejudice to the defence, occurred in a context where depriving the accused of a proper trial is justified (citing Sopinka J in R v S (PL) [1991] 1 SCR 909) and the cost and delay involved in a retrial is avoided (citing Binnie J in R v Jolivet [2000] 1 SCR 751 at para 46). This requires that the Crown case is so strong as to be overwhelming, and in assessing this any possible measure of doubt as to the strength of the prosecution case favours the appellant.

Well, permitting that second type of error is contrary to the widely accepted dictum of Lord Bingham in Randall v R [2002] 1 WLR 2237 at para 28 – mentioned in these notes as recently as 28 May 2009. The Supreme Court of Canada made no reference to fair trial requirements, and its approach is consistent with the view – repulsive to a civilised person – that a guilty accused need not be tried fairly.

Failure of the Supreme Court of Canada to update its jurisprudence on the proviso is important in this appeal because the type of error at trial was of the second kind, as is indicated by the Crown’s concession (noted by Cromwell J at 97) that the error was serious.

The better approach to the proviso is to ask whether the error deprived the accused of a fair trial, that is, a trial where the law was correctly applied to facts determined impartially. If the trial was not fair, the appeal must be allowed. If the error did not prevent a fair trial, is there a real risk that it deprived the accused of a more favourable verdict? If there is such a risk, again the proviso cannot be applied.

However, even under this suggested approach, the Court in Van would probably have split on whether the trial had been fair. The minority would still say that the error may have affected the jury’s assessment of credibility so that it is impossible to say whether they would have convicted in the absence of the error. The majority would still say that the error would not have affected the jury because they would have thought the witness was referring to his earlier evidence and not to inadmissible hearsay. In reasoning this way the majority sidestep the Crown’s concession and treat the error as being of the first kind.

The possibility is that even the best approach to the proviso yet devised will not prevent appellate judges from coming to different conclusions when evaluating the significance of errors. But when they approach their task without a focus on trial fairness they are likely to consider errors insubstantial when the prosecution evidence is strong.

Is a buyer party to the sale?

Abuelhawa v United States [2009] USSC No 08-192, 26 May 2009 deals with whether a buyer of a drug is a party to its sale in a statutory context where the buyer commits a minor offence (or, as they spell it, offense) and the seller a serious offence as indicated by the penalty regime.

Souter J, delivering the opinion of the unanimous Court, said

“Where a transaction like a sale necessarily presupposes two parties with specific roles, it would be odd to speak of one party as facilitating the conduct of the other. A buyer does not just make a sale easier; he makes the sale possible. No buyer, no sale; the buyer’s part is already implied by the term “sale,” and the word “facilitate” adds nothing. We would not say that the borrower facilitates the bank loan. …

” … The traditional law is that where a statute treats one side of a bilateral transaction more leniently, adding to the penalty of the party on that side for facilitating the action by the other would upend the calibration of punishment set by the legislature …”

He noted that “facilitate” has a similar meaning to aid, abet, and assist.

There has been a diversity of opinion as to whether a buyer is a party to a sale. In R v Meston (1975) 34 CRNS 323 the Supreme Court of Canada held that a buyer who encourages the vendor is abetting the sale.

In the UK the offence is defined as “supply … to another” and “to be concerned in the supplying … to another” (s 4 Misuse of Drugs Act 1971[UK]), and it seems to be regarded as “a matter of common sense” that that other person cannot be a person charged: Connelly [1992] Crim LR 296 (CA), although in his commentary to that case Professor Smith said that holding the recipient liable as a secondary party to the principal’s offence “might perhaps be thought a devious way to proceed; but it seems right in principle.”

In Australia a person can be liable for supply of a drug to himself: Maroney v R [2003] HCA 63.

In New Zealand we seem to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea that a buyer may be a party to the sale to himself: R v Ngamoki 7/11/97, Heron J, HC Palmerston North T5/97, although the better approach may be to classify the buyer as a procurer (who commits the lesser offence): R v Lang (1998) 16 CRNZ 68 (CA).

Breach of prosecutor’s duties

Breach of the prosecutor’s duties made the trial unfair in Stewart v R [2009] NZSC 53 (28 May 2009). That meant that the proviso could not be applied. But even if the trial had been fair the convictions would have been quashed because the trial outcome may have been different without the errors.

There is no new law in this decision, just a reminder of the duties of prosecutors and illustrations of their breach. Cases applied are R v Roulston [1976] 2 NZLR 644 (CA), R v Hodges CA535/02, 19 August 2003, R v Cook [1997] 1 SCR 1113, R v Mallory (2007) 217 CCC(3d) 266 (Ontario CA), R v E CA308/06, 11 September 2007, and Lord Bingham’s well known dictum in Randall v R [2002] 1 WLR 2237 at para 28 (noted here 30 June 2008). There is also a quotation from Matenga v R [2009] NZCS 18 (13 March 2009) – a case that has been withheld from publication until completion of a retrial: does this breach the Court’s own suppression order? (Of course not, don’t be silly.)

Here the prosecutor had created substantial prejudice to the accused’s right to a fair hearing by his criticism, in closing, of a defence expert witness. This was a senior psychiatrist, who the prosecutor, without evidential foundation, said had accepted money in an attempt to establish a defence, had spoken “psychobabble”, and had “[bent] things around to suit the accused”. This was an appeal to prejudice through the use of emotive and inflammatory language, which was made all the worse because the witness was in general agreement with the Crown’s expert. The Judge may not have been able to remedy this prejudice, but in any event he had increased it by referring to the witness’s evidence as crucial and mentioned without disapproval the Crown’s submission that the witness’s conclusion was “patently ridiculous”.

Another important breach by the prosecutor was alleging, without an evidential foundation, that the accused and his witnesses were lying in order to avoid his being convicted. This required an assumption of guilt as the motive for lying, and so subverted the presumption of innocence.

This point was not affected by the accused having alleged that prosecution witnesses had their own reasons for lying, because no presumption of innocence applies to them.

The Crown did not seek a retrial, as the appellant had served his sentence. This does not always prevent a retrial, as is illustrated by a high-profile (well, world famous in New Zealand) retrial currently under way. I say no more … hush ma mouf.

Unstilted voluntariness

“When a defendant is not in custody, he is in control, and need only shut his door or walk away to avoid police badgering. And noninterrogative interactions with the State do not involve the “inherently compelling pressures,” Miranda [v Arizona 384 U.S. 436 (1966)], …, at 467, that one might reasonably fear could lead to involuntary waivers.”

The assumption that a suspect who is not in custody does not experience objectionable pressure to consent to official investigatory measures (interrogation, search) is not one that would be made by many counsel experienced in criminal law. Yet it is an important part of the reasoning of the Court (Scalia J, joined by Roberts CJ, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito JJ) in Montejo v Louisiana [2009] USSC No 07-1529 (26 May 2009), slip op. p 16.

The Court overruled its decision in Michigan v Jackson, 475 U.S. 625 (1986), finding it to be “superfluous” (ibid, p 15). Its objectionable aspect was its presumption that waiver of the right to counsel is invalid if the police have initiated interrogation after the defendant has invoked his right to counsel at arraignment or similar proceeding.

There is no need for that presumption, held the Court in Montejo, because a line of cases that have hitherto been concerned with Fifth Amendment rights is applicable to these Sixth Amendment rights too. These cases are not in question, and are Miranda v Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), Edwards v Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981), and Minnick v Mississippi, 498 U.S. 146 (1990). They require respectively (1) that a suspect in custody being interrogated must be advised of his right to have a lawyer present, (2) that such interrogation must stop once the Miranda right is invoked and any subsequent purported waiver is invalid, and (3) that there be no subsequent interrogation until counsel is present.

So, without the Jackson rule, it is possible for the police to interrogate the defendant after arraignment if he is given his Miranda right but he does not invoke it. There is, in other words, no need for the police to seek the prior consent of counsel before interrogating the defendant after commencement of proceedings.

The Court’s approach to overruling its own decisions is of interest. It asks whether the previous decision proved unworkable, how old it is, what reliance interests are at stake, and whether it was well reasoned. The reliance interests are its costs and benefits. The benefits were put this way (slip op, p 15):

“A bright-line rule like that adopted in Jackson ensures that no fruits of interrogations made possible by badgering-induced involuntary waivers are ever erroneously admitted at trial.

“But without Jackson, how many would be? The answer is few if any. The principal reason is that the Court has already taken substantial other, overlapping measures toward the same end [ie Miranda, Edwards and Minnick, above].”

So, the Court has done away with the need for the police (or any enforcement authority) to advise counsel in advance of an effort to interrogate the defendant, at the same time as it has retained the application of the Miranda, Edwards and Minnick line of cases to only custodial interrogation. Is it realistic to suppose that coercion only exists in custody?

Short in trumps

There are times when it’s a struggle to say anything interesting about the final resolution of a disputed point of law.

“How sour sweet music is, when time is broke and no proportion kept …”

isn’t quite it, yet it almost is.

Overall, five judges decided against the appellant (six if you count the first instance court where the point was taken for granted without argument), and four decided it for the appellant. These four, being the majority of the highest court, determined the result.

The Supreme Court decision is Davies v Police [2009] NZSC 47 (25 May 2009). The point is narrow and peculiar to New Zealand statutory law. It is about whether an order for payment of reparation at sentencing can include an award to cover a top up to the amount of compensation to which the victim is entitled under legislation which provides a scheme for that but only to the extent of 80% of the actual loss.

But enough of that. Anyone keen enough to read the decision will note an error in para 21: the sentence

“It [the Court of Appeal] thought that the legislative history made it clear that s 32(5) [of the Sentencing Act 2002] was concerned only to exclude losses not compensated under the Injury Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Compensation Act, and there was no basis for excluding reparation for losses not able to be compensated.”

is obviously wrong (delete the first “not”). Stop the presses, alert the Court! Yawn.

A night mission

Judicial decisions must be based on adequate grounds, and a decision to stay proceedings is no different. In R v Edwards [2009] HCA 20 (21 May 2009) the High Court overturned the Supreme Court of Tasmania’s decision to enter a stay. That Court (SlicerJ) had, held the High Court in a unanimous judgment, acted on a wrong principle and taken into account irrelevant considerations relating to the suggested complexity of the trial.

The charge was reckless operation of an aircraft. The recklessness was alleged to be taking off in darkness without the necessary runway illumination. Five people outside the aircraft saw that the takeoff was done without this lighting. Through delay in the proceedings electronic records of the operation of the lights was lost.

The respondents, the two pilots of this Boeing 737-400, sought a stay because of this loss of evidence. Slicer J put the test as “whether on the material before this Court continuation of the indictment to trial by jury could constitute an unacceptable injustice or unfairness” (emphasis added by the High Court at para 22)

The test, however, is not “could”, but “would”: “whether, in all the circumstances, the continuation of the proceedings would involve unacceptable injustice or unfairness”, or whether the “continuation of the proceedings would be ‘so unfairly and unjustifiably oppressive’ as to constitute an abuse of process”: Walton v Gardiner (1993) 177 CLR 378 at 392 per Mason CJ, Deane and Dawson JJ.

The High Court summarised Slicer J’s errors as

” … [his] ultimate conclusion was based upon the loss of the primary evidence and “overall” delay. It was not explained how the overall delay operated in combination with the lost evidence to create irremediable prejudice to the respondents, nor did his Honour address the circumstance that at least some of the delay was attributable to the conduct of the defence” [Footnote: See Jago v District Court of New South Wales [1989] HCA 46; (1989) 168 CLR 23 at 33 per Mason CJ; [1989] HCA 46 as to the significance of the reasons for delay as a factor in the exercise of the balancing process in determining whether to grant a stay.]

On appeal, the “overall delay” point was not relied on by the respondents, but their argument was that “the loss here is of the independent record of the event giving rise to the charge. This is … productive of unfairness of the kind that informs the power to stay since the trial will necessarily involve an incomplete reconstruction of the event.”

Not so, said the High Court. There is nothing unusual in a court having to consider an incomplete account of events:

“31. The distinction between an independent record forming a constituent part of an event and an independent record of an event is without substance. Trials involve the reconstruction of events and it happens on occasions that relevant material is not available; documents, recordings and other things may be lost or destroyed. Witnesses may die. The fact that the tribunal of fact is called upon to determine issues of fact upon less than all of the material which could relevantly bear upon the matter does not make the trial unfair [Footnote: Jago v District Court of New South Wales [1989] HCA 46; (1989) 168 CLR 23 at 34 per Mason CJ, 47 per Brennan J; Williams v Spautz [1992] HCA 34; (1992) 174 CLR 509 at 519 per Mason CJ, Dawson, Toohey and McHugh JJ; [1992] HCA 34.]”


“33. It is well established that the circumstances in which proceedings may be found to be an abuse of process are not susceptible of exhaustive definition [Footnote: Ridgeway v The Queen (1995) 184 CLR 19 at 74-75 per Gaudron J; [1995] HCA 66; R v Carroll [2002] HCA 55; (2002) 213 CLR 635 at 657 [73] per Gaudron and Gummow JJ; Batistatos v Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales [2006] HCA 27; (2006) 226 CLR 256 at 265-267 [9]- [15] per Gleeson CJ, Gummow, Hayne and Crennan JJ; [2006] HCA 27.] It is not necessary to consider whether there may be circumstances in which the loss of admissible evidence occasions injustice of a character that would make the continuation of proceedings on indictment an abuse of the process of the court. This is not such a case. The content of the … [missing evidence] is unknown. In these circumstances it is not correct to characterise … [its] loss as occasioning prejudice to the respondents. The lost evidence serves neither to undermine nor to support the Crown case. It is to be observed that if the Crown is unable to exclude the hypothesis, that the runway lighting was illuminated as the aircraft moved along it and that it ceased operating coincidentally at the time of take-off, it would fail to establish an element of the principal and the alternative offence.”

It could not be established that any prejudice arising from the delay could not be addressed by a direction (para 34, citing Jago v The District Court of New South Wales [1989] HCA 46; (1989) 168 CLR 23 at 34 per Mason CJ, 60 per Deane J, 77-78 per Gaudron J; R v Glennon [1992] HCA 16; (1992) 173 CLR 592 at 605 per Mason CJ and Toohey J; [1992] HCA 16; see also Longman v The Queen (1989) 168 CLR 79; [1989] HCA 60).

This case illustrates that more is required for a stay than merely a complaint that evidence that might have assisted the defence is lost. It is not sufficient simply that the evidence would have been relevant to an issue in the case, it needs to be shown that the missing evidence would have tended to establish a proposition that would assist the defence. Loss of the evidence may mean that prosecution evidence is uncorroborated, and the court may properly be cautious for that reason, but that goes to weight. A stay is a drastic remedy and is not given on a whim. As I have noted in relation to risk of unfairness (see, for example, entries for 19 July 2005, 1 May 2006) it is appropriate to look at this as a question of fact rather than as an “evaluation”. Is there a real risk that the lost evidence would have had probative value for the defence? In the present case, some evidence that the takeoff had been illuminated by the runway lights would have been needed: the respondents had not given evidence at this pre-trial application. Whether evidence from them would have been enough to give rise to a risk that could not be dealt with by a direction cannot be ascertained from this judgment: the High Court ordered that the application for a stay be dismissed. Could a fresh application based on further evidence be made, or would that be an abuse of process as the applicants have had their opportunity? You decide.

Also decide whether the High Court has inappropriately merged the reluctance of the court to grant a stay with the receptiveness of the court to the risk of unfairness.

Remedies for undue delay

The remedy for undue delay before trial was the subject of Williams v R [2009] NZSC 41.

As would be expected, the Court applied dicta in Attorney-General’s Reference (No 2 of 2001) [2004] 2 AC 71 at para 24, and Elaheebocus v The State of Mauritius [2009] UKPC 7 (noted here 2 March 2009).

“Undue” delay means unjustifiable (para 12), and

” … there is no obligation on any accused to progress matters towards trial, or to protest about delay; the obligation is on the prosecution to ensure trial without undue delay. Whether delay is attributable to the Courts or to the prosecution is irrelevant to the determination of the question of excessive delay, but may be relevant in assessing the validity of any explanation for the delay and (if necessary) what remedy should be granted.”

The Court observed that the right to a fair trial and the right to a trial without undue delay are distinct rights but they can overlap. There may be undue delay, requiring a remedy, even though the delay did not affect trial fairness. Therefore, a stay of proceedings is not the automatic remedy for undue delay. It is not even a usual remedy (para 18):

“Staying the proceedings is likely to be the correct remedy only if the delay has been egregious, or there has been prosecutorial misconduct or a sanction is required against a prosecutor who does not proceed promptly to trial after being directed by a Court to do so. If an accused is convicted after being on bail pending trial, a reduction in the term of imprisonment is likely to be the appropriate remedy. If the accused has been in custody, that time will count towards service of the term of imprisonment. In an extreme case, [Footnote: As for example in Darmalingum v The State [2000] 1 WLR 2303 (PC)] the conviction may be set aside. Upon acquittal, monetary compensation may be justified.
The seriousness of the offending will usually not be relevant to the nature of the remedy. If however the offending is well towards the lower end of the scale, that may be sufficient to tip the balance in favour of a stay.”

Obviously, where delay (or anything else) leads to an unfair trial a stay (or on appeal the quashing of a conviction) would be necessary.

In Williams the reduction of sentence was the appropriate remedy for the undue delay.