Exculpatory statements … and trials in the fullness of time

A brief note on two Privy Council decisions from last week:

Gordon v R (Belize) [2010] UKPC 18 (21 July 2010) is an interesting little reminder that there are times when the prosecution is, in the interests of fairness to the accused, obliged to lead evidence of his exculpatory statement, applying R v Sharp [1988] 1 WLR 7 and R v Aziz [1996] 1 AC 41.

The case also illustrates a misdirection on provocation.

In Maraj-Naraynsingh v Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago [2010] UKPC 19 (21 July 2010) we are given a glimpse of what seems to be a relaxed attitude to work in the tropics: the case highlights an absence in that jurisdiction of a constitutional right to a trial within a reasonable time; the right to be brought before a court “promptly” after arrest cannot be extended to include a right to be tried promptly after committal.

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Res gestae lives again! And implied assertions are statements.

The majority in Rongonui v R [2010] NZSC 92 did not share the Chief Justice’s view that “res gestae” is an outmoded term (see Hart v R [2010] NZSC 91 at 17, noted below).

In Rongonui, Blanchard, Tipping, McGrath and Wilson JJ held jointly that res gestae statements are not within the scope of s 35 Evidence Act 2006 (prior consistent statements) [46]. Terminology might be in doubt, as the judgment refers to “what used to be called” res gestae evidence [47], and at [46] the phrase “words spoken in the course of the events in issue” is used – but that could hardly have been intended to be a convenient substitute for the term “res gestae“.

Res gestae statements therefore continue to be admissible in the same circumstances in which they were admissible at common law.

The joint judgment in Rongonui also tidied up what was becoming a needlessly contentious issue: a spurious exclusion of implied statements from the scope of “statements” (see the definition of “statement” in s 4 Evidence Act 2006), especially in relation to the statutory hearsay rule. A statement is an assertion, and an assertion may be express or implied [33]. The Crown in Rongonui could not argue that evidence that the complainant told someone “what had happened” was not an assertion that she had given the same account of events as she was giving in court. Those words carried the implication of consistency, and were accordingly an assertion of consistency, and in the circumstances of this case were an inadmissible prior consistent statement.

It seems to me that if the defence specifies when it claims invention first occurred, consistent statements before that will have a relevance that is more likely to be obvious than consistent statements made after that date, although generalisation is dangerous and the circumstances of each case will need consideration in assessing the probative value of the challenged consistent statement. That there will be difficulties is signaled by the Chief Justice’s dissent in Rongonui on the s 35 point.

Barlien got a drubbing today. It has up to now been cited by the Court of Appeal mainly for the point on which it was approved: that when the prior consistent statement is admissible it is admissible as proof of what it asserts. In two cases Barlien has been noted uncritically on other points now corrected by the Supreme Court: in Ringi v R [2008] NZCA 293 it was mentioned as showing the difficulties of s 35, and in a case which carried a suppression order so I only cite its number, CA529/2008, Barlien was mentioned as authority for the proposition that res gestae evidence is no longer admissible. Another aspect of Barlien – observations on potential difficulties concerning identification evidence – has been called into question by the Chief Justice in footnote 29 of Hart; the Court of Appeal cited Barlien uncritically on that point in CA108/2009.

There is much overlap between Rongonui and the Court’s other decision of today, Hart (see below), especially on the incorporation of what used to be called recent complaint evidence in sex cases into s 35 so that they no longer need to be “recent” in the common law sense, they are admissible as proof of the truth of their assertions, but they are only admissible when the conditions in s 35 are met. That is not a formidable obstacle, as usually the defence in such cases will be alleging recent invention.

All judges in Rongonui agreed that the trial had involved breaches of s 90(5) Evidence Act 2006, and the joint judgment, with which Elias CJ agreed, contains some comments on deciding when a record is capable of refreshing a witness’s memory.

Prior consistent statements

Hart v R [2010] NZSC 91 (23 July 2010) addresses the law of the admissibility of prior consistent statements in the context of a claim of recent invention under s 35 Evidence Act 2006.

The Court was unanimous, and the reasoning in the two judgments is consistent. Blanchard, Tipping, McGrath and Wilson JJ jointly held that the essence of an admissible prior consistent statement is its tendency to respond to a challenge to the witness’s veracity or accuracy based on a claim of recent invention [50]. An “invention” is a deliberately misleading statement [51]. It is not always possible to identify exactly when a motive to fabricate arose [52, and Elias CJ at 20]. Therefore it is not necessary that the prior consistent statement was made before the occasion or motive for the claimed invention [53, and Elias CJ at 20]. This is a departure from the position that had prevailed at common law.

The prior statement is admissible as proof of the truth of its assertion [54-57]. This too is a departure from the common law rule that prior statements were only admissible as proof of the witness’s consistency.

Elias CJ held that prior statements admissible under s 35 can include what the common law called “recent complaint” allegations of sexual offending [14]. It is now not necessary that such complaints be “recent” in relation to the alleged incident, but their admission does need to be “necessary” to rebut the allegation of recent invention [15].

She also held that a recent invention in terms of s 35 is one that occurred after the events described [16].

Elias CJ disagreed with the Court of Appeal’s judgment in R v Barlien [2008] NZCA 180 on several points (I have commented on this case on 8 July 2008): recent complaints are within s 35, and speech that is part of the events (formerly called res gestae – a term that is now to be avoided [17]) can also be admissible “in themselves” [17]. She also doubted that Barlien was correct to exclude from s 35 previous statements by identifying witnesses [footnote 29]. Nor did she consider the legislation would disrupt the course of evidence, as defence counsel would usually indicate the basis for a defence in opening remarks, or would agree that the Crown could lead evidence of the prior statement in examination in chief [19].

Barlien was therefore needlessly alarmist.

Of critical importance will be the necessity requirement: when is admission of evidence of the prior consistent statement “necessary” under s 35? [Elias CJ at 11, joint judgment at 51.] The joint judgment says that judicial experience with the common law will assist in judging the tendency of the statement to rebut the allegation of recent invention. Elias CJ refers to the requirements of relevance in s 7.

Much to rejoice about here, if clarity is what you want. I am a little uneasy about the joint judgment’s apparent limitation of “recent invention” to statements that are deliberately misleading [51], because s 35 allows them to be admitted to respond to a challenge to the witnesses “accuracy”, not just “veracity”.

Collateral attack, witness immunity, and abuse of process

An orthodox application of Hunter v Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police [1982] AC 529 (HL), prohibiting the use of civil proceedings to mount a collateral attack on a decision in a criminal case, is Hurnam v Bholah (Mauritius) [2010] UKPC 12 (12 July 2010).

Issues that have been decided to have reached the standard of beyond reasonable doubt cannot be taken to be capable of having a different outcome if they were to be decided on the balance of probabilities. The exception is where fresh evidence passes a “rigorous test” (per Lord Diplock in Hunter at 545).

In Hunter, the Birmingham Six case, the accused were held beyond reasonable doubt at voir dire not to have been subjected to violence before they made statements which were therefore admissible at trial, so subsequent civil proceedings by the accused against the officials for alleged assault were stayed as an abuse of process.

Ultimately the Birmingham Six were shown to have been wrongly convicted – even wrongly accused – and they received compensation.

An interesting aspect of Hurnam v Bholah is its reference (37-38) to French law on issue estoppel. In Mauritius the substantive law is based mainly on the French Napoleonic Code, whereas procedural law is mainly English. In English common law the position was that neither an acquittal nor a conviction was admissible on the same issue in civil proceedings: Hollington v F Hewthorn & Co Ltd [1943] KB 587. This was the applicable law in Mauritius. The position in the UK was changed by statute (s 11 Civil Evidence Act 1968) so that a conviction is prima facie evidence in civil proceedings that the person did commit the offence. But French law permits the results of criminal cases, whether convictions or acquittals, to be used in evidence in civil cases. However this has been held not to be part of the procedural law of Mauritius.

There is an obvious irony in Hunter being authority for preventing civil proceedings being used to undermine a criminal conviction, as the convictions there were unsound. But the point is that a conviction is a matter of criminal law and it can only be challenged on appeal or on prerogative review.

In the present case the Board held (31) that Mr Hurnam was seeking to use civil proceedings, not to obtain damages, but to restore his reputation by calling into question the guilty verdict in the criminal proceedings. He had been found guilty of conspiring to fabricate an alibi, and his civil proceedings claimed that the allegation that he had conspired to fabricate the alibi was false.

Lord Brown agreed with the judgment of the Board delivered by Lord Rodger, and added that witness immunity protected the witness whose evidence supported the allegation of conspiracy to fabricate the alibi from subsequent suit (Darker v Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police [2001] 1 AC 435), the policy being that witnesses should not, for fear of being sued for something they say, be afraid to tell the truth (citing Lord Hoffman in Taylor v Director of the Serious Fraud Office [1999] 2 AC 177, 208). There was no issue of witness immunity in Hunter and Lord Brown considered that Hunter was a weaker case for striking out than was the present case.

Stubborn beliefs and the elusive truth

On how we let our beliefs get in the way of the facts, and on how contrary facts merely entrench our preconceived beliefs, see this article from the Boston Globe, 11 July 2010, “How facts backfire” by Joe Keohane.

While that article is not concerned with forensic fact finding, it does have fundamental implications for trial procedure.

The article mentions research that indicates that persuasion requires an adjustment of the other person’s (fact-finder’s) belief about the issue, not by presenting facts that threaten the person by putting them in the position of being wrong, but by interactively presenting evidence that directly confronts preconceived beliefs. To lawyers this implies that jurors or fact-finding judges should be able to question witnesses directly. Another suggestion is that increasing the “reputational cost” of error could discourage people from adhering to false beliefs. This could be done by making jurors answerable for their decisions, for example by exposing them to media questioning after their verdicts.

Current practice could hardly be more different. Our trial procedure may discourage accurate fact finding.

It takes all sorts …

I have previously noted Lord Rodger’s dark humour. Unless he is one of those chaps who seems funnier the further away one gets from him, here he goes again:

” … just as male heterosexuals are free to enjoy themselves playing rugby, drinking beer and talking about girls with their mates, so male homosexuals are to be free to enjoy themselves going to Kylie concerts, drinking exotically coloured cocktails and talking about boys with their straight female mates. …”.

HJ (Iran) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2010] UKSC 31 (7 July 2010), at para 78. I suspect he was assisted in writing that passage by what Lady Hale has called “the extremely bright young Judicial Assistants in the Supreme Court”: opening address in ‘Ten years on’: A Multi-perspective Evaluation of the Human Rights Act – Salford Human Rights Conference 2010 (4-5 June 2010).

HJ isn’t a criminal case, so I don’t need to comment on it here.

I was surprised to hear, when she was interviewed on a radio programme during her recent visit to New Zealand, that Lady Hale sounds much different from what her somewhat tousled ra-ra-hockey-sticks appearance might suggest. She was incredibly patient with some rather mundane questions.

For discussion of HJ, see Aidan O’Neill QC, “Some Reflections on Religion, Sexuality and the Possible Transatlantic Implications of the HJ (Iran) v. Home Secretary [2010] UKSC 31” at UKSC blog 12 July 2010.

Free speech and foolishness

Once again our passionate little nation is in thrall to the Bain case (see my comments posted 8 June 2009). Last night a television documentary tried to persuade us that the acquitted David Bain should not receive compensation. At least that was its import; ostensibly it merely suggested that there was no case to be made against one of the five murdered victims, Robin Bain. At trial the defence had suggested that Robin was the killer.

There will always be differences of opinion over who was the murderer. People who were not at the trial and who did not hear all the witnesses and see all the evidence cannot possibly have worthwhile opinions on that issue. Even people who sat through the whole case disagree on its outcome. If people can’t agree on whether there was a reasonable doubt, how can they agree on whether on the balance of probabilities the acquitted David Bain should receive compensation?

The case has almost left the law behind. It is now a form of entertainment, as is the expression of all ill-informed opinion. My own views are just as likely to be silly as those of anyone else who was not at the trial. I can argue either side, and in fact do, depending on who I wish to irritate. The tragedy has become a farce.