Ideas or decisions?

Much that is of interest to criminal lawyers in Dickson v R [2010] HCA 30 (22 September 2010) is not discussed in the judgment.

The appellant had been convicted of an offence against a statutory provision that was invalid by reason of its inconsistency with s 11.5 of the Criminal Code (C’th). The High Court ordered that the charge should be quashed, the conviction entered on it should be quashed, and the sentence should be set aside.

The questions that naturally arise from this did not require decision, but some digression might have been interesting:

  • If Mr Dickson had been acquitted at trial, would that have been a valid acquittal?
  • Was he in jeopardy of conviction?
  • Can he, if now properly charged, plead previous conviction? Or previous acquittal (in view of the successful appeal)?
  • Would new proceedings on the same matter be an abuse of process?

There are implications of this decision that could be, for Australians, utterly horrifying, as Associate Professor Jeremy Gans suggests.

This decision has what are coming to be hallmarks of the new style of the High Court, at least in criminal cases: one judgment, tightly reasoned, narrowly focused. It is as if the Court has undertaken a physicist-like quest for a unified theory of everything (in the sense of one voice on every issue). Lady Hale would not approve (update: she elaborates here), and I agree with her.

There is nothing wrong with bringing the methods of science to law, but some sciences recognise the value of diversity. The current style does nothing to promote a growth in ideas.

For discussion of “null and void” at this site, see entries for 20 February 2006, 28 July 2006, and 13 May 2008.

The best of the best

Tom Bingham’s brilliant article in the London Review of Books (26 March 2009) made many of us think he was just beginning a retirement career as a masterful commentator. His death on 11.9.10 came, therefore, as a surprise as well as an occasion for sober reflection: see the tribute by Alex Bailin QC at UKSC blog.

For me, Lord Bingham’s most important contribution was to settle a debate about the status of an accused person’s right to a fair hearing. While some judges were prepared to see this as a right that could be qualified by being balanced against the rights of the prosecution and of victims, in Randall v R (Cayman Islands) [2002] UKPC 19 at para 28 Lord Bingham, for the Board, established the absolutist position:

“…the right of a criminal defendant to a fair trial is absolute. There will come a point when the departure from good practice is so gross, or so persistent, or so prejudicial, or so irremediable that an appellate court will have no choice but to condemn a trial as unfair and quash a conviction as unsafe, however strong the grounds for believing the defendant to be guilty. The right to a fair trial is one to be enjoyed by the guilty as well as the innocent, for a defendant is presumed to be innocent until proved to be otherwise in a fairly conducted trial.”

And in the House of Lords the same point was made (by Lord Bingham for the Appellate Committee) in R v H [2004] UKHL 3 (5 February 2004) at para 10. This required some delicate manoeuvring around dicta that appeared to support a balancing approach to this right (para 12, citing Lord Steyn in Attorney-General’s Reference (No 3 of 1999) [2001] 2 AC 91, 118). Even so, the issue was not secure: four months after H, Lord Bingham agreed with Lord Steyn in R v Special Adjudicator, ex parte Ullah [2004] UKHL 26 (17 June 2004) who at para 44 called the right a “qualified” right (that is, subject to derogation – a point that is rarely relevant), requiring consideration of a “triangulation of interests” (the accused, the victim, the public) where “compromises” might be required, although the requirement of a fair trial is “a universal norm”.

But Lord Steyn had delivered the Board’s judgment in Mohammed v The State (Trinidad and Tobago) [1998] UKPC 49 (9 December 1998), saying at para 29 “a breach of a defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial must inevitably result in the conviction being quashed.” Is there a problem? Was Lord Steyn suggesting a model of fairness where whatever “fair” means, it is absolute, but its meaning is determined by triangulation? That possibility is excluded by H, triangulation is confined to other rights and its results are subject to the test of fairness (see para 36, step 6).  Were it to be otherwise, “absolute” would mean nothing. To borrow Larkin’s apposite phrase, “one side will have to go”.
The accepted position is summarised in [2005] New Zealand Law Review 217 at 249 (footnotes omitted):

“The question is not how unfair is the accused’s trial required to be because of proper restrictions on cross-examination, but rather, what restrictions on cross-examination are compatible with the accused’s absolute right to a fair trial? Again, the question is not to what extent may reasonable breaches in identification procedures limit the accused’s right to a fair trial, but rather, what failings in identification procedure are compatible with the accused’s absolute right to a fair trial? The question is not to what extent may disparities in the opportunity of expert witnesses to examine the relevant evidence limit the accused’s right to a fair trial, but rather, what disparities are compatible with the accused’s absolute right to a fair trial? The question is not, to what extent may pre-trial publicity limit the accused’s right to a fair trial, but rather, what level of publicity is compatible with the accused’s absolute right to a fair trial? The question is not, to what extent may breaches in the rights relating to police questioning be allowed to limit the accused’s right to a fair trial, but rather, what departures are consistent with both the accused’s right to a fair trial and wider issues of prevention of abuse of process?”


It is generally accepted that the accused’s right to a fair trial is an absolute right: R v Howse (New Zealand) [2005] UKPC 31, para 36; Condon v R [2006] NZSC 62 (23 August 2006) at para 77, 78.

Eight days before Condon was decided, no less a legal scholar than Grant Hammond (who has achieved praise in these blogs) delivered a lecture in which he said (p 20) “The question whether it is possible to have an unfair trial but a safe conviction is maddeningly simple. But there is no clear answer” and he favoured a broad approach whereby if a conviction appeared safe on the evidence at trial, the accused’s appeal should only be allowed on unfairness grounds if a balancing of rights supported that conclusion. What was clear to Lord Bingham might only slowly become apparent to others.

In New Zealand we have particular reason to remember Lord Bingham as the judge who delivered the devastating rejection of the Court of Appeal’s analysis of the case against David Bain: Bain v R (New Zealand) [2009] UKPC 4 (16 March 2009). Applying the correct approach to the proviso, the Board ordered a new trial. Mr Bain (as all New Zealanders know) was subsequently acquitted of the murders of his parents and three siblings. The New Zealand courts have now changed their approach to the proviso, although the Privy Council insists that the result in Bain would have been the same: Barlow v R (New Zealand) [2009] UKPC 30, para 21.