Aiming les brickbats at le top

A full eleven days after the decision in Matenga v R [2009] NZSC 18 (13 March 2009, mentioned in note of 9 July 2009) came to my attention, thanks to the Privy Council, I am still a bit grumpy.

Fact-finders: judges compared with juries

A pivotal part of the reasoning in that case is this sentence, beginning para 18:

“It is artificial to say that Judges, while holding one view themselves, may ascribe a different view to the hypothetical jury.”

The assumption is that the appellate judges will hold a view of the appropriate verdict in the first place.

It is officially known that juries do not always reach the same verdict that trial judges would have. The New Zealand Law Commission has published a study on juries: “Juries in Criminal Trials – Part Two” Preliminary Paper 37 – Volume 2 (Wellington, November 1999). There, at para 9.3 – 9.4, the authors summarise results on jury agreement and disagreement with the judge in the trials studied:

“9.3 The judge and jury were essentially agreed on the appropriate verdict in 24 out of the 48 trials. These comprised: 17 verdicts of guilty on all or most counts; six verdicts of not guilty; and one verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. In a further 11 trials, where there was disagreement between judge and jury as to the appropriate verdict on one or more of the counts in the indictment, the jury’s view appeared to be reasonable and supportable on the evidence. In most of these cases, the disagreement simply resulted from differences in the assessment of the credibility of key witnesses, but in one case the jury based its verdict on features of the evidence, clearly establishing guilt on one of the counts, which the judge overlooked. Moreover, in many of these cases, judges were in fact hesitant about their view (sometimes making a point of stating that they did not think about it during the trial), and asserted that the jury could reasonably take a different view of the facts from that which they expressed to us. Overall, therefore, a verdict which was either fully supported by the judge or supportable on the evidence was given in 35 out of the 48 trials.

“9.4 In the remaining 13 trials, five were classified as “compromise” verdicts in multiple count cases; three were classified as either perverse or questionable verdicts; and five involved fully hung juries… .” [emphasis in para 9.3 added]

There was no need for Matenga to decide that an appellate court should take on the fact finding role of a jury. But the Court thought this was required by the existence of the proviso:

“[29] Following conviction, after a fair trial by jury, Parliament has given the appeal courts an ability to uphold the conviction despite there being a miscarriage of justice in some respect. While the jury is in general terms the arbiter of guilt in our system of criminal justice, the very existence of the proviso demonstrates that Parliament intended the Judges sitting on the appeal to be the ultimate arbiters of guilt in circumstances in which the proviso applies.”

The other view – the one that I suggest is traditional – is that the proviso requires the appellate court to be the ultimate arbiter of the fairness of the trial. That would involve determining whether the law was properly applied to facts determined impartially. Did the error, the miscarriage of justice, give rise to a real risk that the tribunal of fact was rendered partial? Many appeals, where the proviso could not be applied, would be concerned with trials that had not been fair. In deciding fairness, the appellate court does not have to reach its own verdict.

What is a “fair trial”?

Unfortunately, in Matenga the Court seems to have removed much of the content of the concept of a fair trial. This occurred by treating the requirement for a fair trial as something that could be satisfied notwithstanding that further issues of the substantiveness of the miscarriage needed to be decided. The risk is that this reduced concept of a fair trial will be nothing more than a trial by a lawfully constituted tribunal exercising lawful jurisdiction. That is a requirement for a “trial” but it doesn’t establish that the trial was “fair”.

The idea of a fair trial is important because if the trial was unfair Matenga does not require the appellate court to embark on deciding its own verdict. Yet Matenga, while acknowledging that the accused’s right to a fair trial is an absolute right, does not say what a fair trial is. In cases where the trial transcript is a bulky document, appellate judges will be grateful for the opportunity to avoid its close study by deciding the appeal on fairness grounds. But how?

The good bits

It must be acknowledged that Matenga anticipates that wherever there is a credibility contest the proviso will be unlikely to be applied. That was the position in Matenga itself, and there was no detailed discussion of the contentious evidence.

“29 … considerable caution is necessary before resorting to the proviso when the ultimate issues depend, as they frequently will, on the assessment of witnesses.”

Many cases are of that nature. Many others consist of incriminating circumstances and an explanation tendered by the accused; in those the “assessment of witnesses” may focus only on the accused. Even so, Matenga suggests that there also the appellate court would exercise “considerable caution” before dismissing the appeal. So Matenga may be reserved for cases where the prosecution case is circumstantial, where the accused does not give evidence, and where the error at trial would not have prevented a fair trial. Barlow (noted here 9 July 2009) was treated by the Privy Council as an example, although it is open to question on trial fairness grounds: was the jury made partial by being given evidence which may not have been as reliable as it then appeared to be?

Final jette un brickbat

Dissatisfaction with an appellate court’s conclusion that a guilty verdict was correct can arise from below (we, the people) or above (the court of second appeal, as in Matenga). Jury trials were invented to place responsibility for the verdict in the best hands. It is better that criticism should be directed at juries than at the judiciary. The jury study shows that the reasonableness of judges as fact-finders is not a given. Judges should stick to their knitting.

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