More on the right to legal advice

The relationship between the right to legal advice and the right to a fair hearing, discussed here in commentary on R v Sinclair, 15 October 2010, was again a central theme in yesterday’s United Kingdom Supreme Court decision, Cadder v HM Advocate [2010] UKSC 43. In this case the law of Scotland was brought into line with the law in other jurisdictions that apply the European Convention on Human Rights.

I suggested that Sinclair will have to be applied in a way that preserves the defendant’s absolute right to a fair hearing. This too is a requirement of Cadder. All members of the Court agreed with the two leading judgments (although technically Lord Mance agreed with Lord Hope but through him also agreed with Lord Rodger). Lord Rodger put the relationship between the non-absolute right to legal assistance and the absolute right to a fair trial this way (95):

“First, as the European Court recognises, [in Salduz v Turkey] 49 EHRR 421, 437, para 55, since the right to legal assistance at the stage when a suspect is to be questioned is an implied right, it is not absolute and must be subject to exceptions when, in the particular circumstances, there are compelling reasons to restrict it. It is not suggested that there would have been any such reasons in this case. But the circumstances in which section 15 of the 1995 Act envisages delaying intimation to a solicitor (the interest of the investigation or the prevention of crime or the apprehension of offenders) could perhaps constitute compelling reasons to restrict the right of access in an appropriate case. It has to be remembered, however, that even a justified restriction may deprive an accused of a fair hearing and so lead to a violation of article 6: 49 EHRR 421, 436, para 52.”

Key concepts are the “compelling reasons” needed before the right to legal assistance can be restricted, and the nature of the “fair hearing”. Neither of those called for detailed consideration in Cadder.

I doubt that in practice the correct application of Sinclair will produce different outcomes in Canadian courts from those in Scottish courts under Cadder.

Lord Rodger at 100-103 also dealt with the argument that changing the law of Scotland now would create a need to revise all the decisions that had applied the earlier law, by applying dicta in A v The Governor of Arbour Hill Prison [2006] 4 IR 88, per Murray CJ at paras 36-38.

Lord Hope referred to Gafgen v Germany (a case discussed here on 3 July 2008, 3 December 2008, and 25 June 2010, and also in Part 3 of the overview of these notes posted on 14 January 2010). He held at 48 that Gafgen turned on it’s facts and was not a limitation of Salduz. Continue reading

Provoking nostalgia

I recall that some of the better law students used to laugh at judges’ efforts to elucidate the acts reus of attempts, especially impossible attempts, and also at their efforts to explain what provocation is. The latter has remained problematic, as can be seen from today’s High Court of Australia decision in Pollock v R [2010] HCA 35. The case illustrates how even Bench Book directions derived from appellate judgments can be held by a higher court to be wrong.

In New Zealand we have repealed the statutory defence of provocation, as it is no longer thought to be necessary since the penalty for murder can in exceptional cases be less than life imprisonment. I am sure that, once the question of provocation is explored in sentencing hearings, the old difficulties will be revived.

Now that the questions concerning liability for impossible attempts have been solved, and provocation has diminished in importance, law students will be starved for intellectual stimulation in criminal law. Is there really anything worth puzzling over as far as the ingredients of offences and defences are concerned? Surely the focus of interest has shifted to admissibility issues, especially those involving rights.

So there is some nostalgia in reading Pollock – those old familiar authorities, those old familiar errors.

The right to legal advice

The requirement that a confession must be voluntary has several components. One is the right to silence, and waiver of this right must be informed and freely exercised (another requirement of voluntariness). The need for “informed” waiver of the right to silence is the reason that a caution has to be administered before a suspect is interviewed. The caution also contains information about the right to legal advice. This right to legal advice protects the “informed waiver” component of the right to silence, but it also extends to protect the ongoing requirement of voluntariness that continues throughout an interview. It should ensure that the suspect knows that he can exercise the right to silence at any time during questioning. The suspect is entitled to advice which will inform him of the significance of the questioning that will occur: its importance for potential proof of criminal liability. That means that the legal adviser needs to know what offences might be charged and the way in which liability for them might arise from the suspect’s answers if he is to be questioned.

When one asks what the right to legal advice entails, this context of the right in relation to voluntariness of a potential confession needs to be remembered. Does this context make the operation of the right to legal advice in any particular case a matter for balancing against other interests, such as the public interest in the bringing of offenders to justice? Or is the right to legal advice an absolute right because of its being a component of the voluntariness of a confession?

This latter position, absoluteness, was taken by LeBel, Fish and Abella JJ in R v Sinclair [2010] SCC 35 (8 October 2010) and again in a companion case decided the same day, R v McCrimmon [2010] SCC 36. They said that what needs to be justified is a limitation on the right to legal advice, not the exercise of the right (McCrimmon at 39). Their concern with the power imbalance inherent in a police interview led them to repeat the dissent they had issued in Sinclair.

I should say, parenthetically, that it was illegal for those judges to repeat the dissent: since the matter was decided by the majority in Sinclair, they were obliged to follow the law and apply Sinclair. They could have still in McCrimmon reached the same conclusion as they did, by turning attention to the requirement of voluntariness. Unfortunately, the splitting of issues on appeal has led to the right to legal advice being considered in detail but without its important context of voluntariness. There was necessarily some mention of voluntariness, but this was more by way of aside (see, for example, the majority in Sinclair at 62).

The majority in Sinclair (McLachiln CJ and Charron J, with Deschamps, Rothstein and Cromwell JJ concurring) held that the right to legal advice involves an initial informing and a reasonable opportunity to exercise the right. It does not include a right to have counsel present throughout the interview. There may, during the course of an interview, be a need for a further opportunity for legal advice, but this arises only where it objectively appears that the initial advice could have been inadequate or where a new issue makes an opportunity for advice appropriate. It is not enough that the suspect merely wishes to interrupt an interview, as the suspect can exercise the right to silence. Fundamental to the majority’s approach is the view that ascertaining the contours of the right to silence requires consideration of societal interests in the investigation and solving of crimes (Sinclair at 58, 63).

One would have to think very carefully before venturing to disagree with Charron J on a point of the law of evidence. Whether or not one agrees with the majority reasoning should depend on whether one accepts that qualifying the right to silence, by qualifying the right to legal advice, risks jeopardising the absolute quality of the requirement that a confession is made voluntarily. The majority’s reasoning seems to be that qualifying those subsidiary rights may be acceptable as long as the voluntariness of any confession remains absolute. That would be analogous to reasoning that has been used in relation to rights associated with the accused’s absolute right to a fair trial (see, for example, R(Ullah) v Special Adjudicator noted here, and with reference to judicial difficulties, 3 September 2004).

The Sinclair majority’s reasoning is anchored to an appreciation of the “broad sense” of voluntariness required for confessions (Sinclair at 62), but unfortunately these cases have no detailed discussion of voluntariness. The majority makes great claims for the role of the voluntariness requirement (Sinclair at 64: “If anything, our reasons broaden the protection available to suspects, and narrow the ambit of police questioning”), and there will be many who read that sceptically. A consequence of finding no breach of the right to legal advice if there was no impact on the voluntariness of a confession is that there would be no need for the balancing exercise to determine the admissibility of the confession (in Canada, theGrant balancing) in such cases. Of course, if there was an impact on voluntariness, exclusion would be automatic. But cases of lesser police impropriety would be immune from judicial criticism in the form of exclusion. A very “broad” sense of voluntariness would be needed to address those.

Also decided the same day was R v Willier [2010] SCC 37, in which the Court unanimously held that on the facts there was no breach of the right to legal advice. Each of the approaches, so different in philosophy, can still lead to agreement on particular facts.

There is a brief but interesting discussion of the relevance of foreign law (here Miranda) to the question of the meaning of the right to legal advice, in Sinclair at 38-42.

See also my discussion of R v Singh, 2 November 2007, and for the position in Europe, see Salduz v Turkey [2008] ECHR 1542 at paras 50-55.

Interpreting positive drug tests in cyclists

I am not a great follower of the sport of cycling. Apparently it is bad for the health of male genitals, and I can see why. But recently a successful cyclist, Alberto Contador, has tested positive for a minute trace of a substance that is banned. His explanation is that it must have been in meat he innocently ate. Farmers do use that drug to improve the muscle mass of their cattle.

It seems to be thought that the controversy will be resolved by a second test of Mr Contador’s body fluid samples.

Nonsense. The occurrence of the drug in people who eat meat from the same source as Mr Contador’s meal must be examined. The probability of getting Mr Contador’s test result, on the assumption that he is guilty of deliberately taking the drug, must be compared with the probability of getting his test result on the assumption that he is innocent. This latter is the proportion of people who have a similar test result who got that result innocently from eating.

Scientific reasoning is comparable to legal reasoning. In science the method of investigation involves attempting to disprove a null hypothesis. For example, if the null hypothesis was “this drug test result could not have been caused by food”, scientific inquiry would involve looking for an instance where the relevant sort of food consumption caused the same test result. Falsification of the null hypothesis was the criterion for scientific advance recognised in the scientific community and famously described by Karl Popper.

In legal reasoning applicable to criminal trials, the prosecution’s hypothesis is the null hypothesis (“this drug test result could not have been caused by food”). But it is not for the defence to disprove the null hypothesis. Of course, the defence could seek to do so, and would win if it did produce evidence that the null hypothesis was false. But generally it is for the prosecution to prove that there is nothing to falsify the null hypothesis. “Progress” in this legal context occurs where there can be no disproof of the null hypothesis, whereas in science progress is disproof of the null hypothesis. Obviously, whereas disproof of the null hypothesis occurs by a specific event, the prosecution’s task of showing there is no disproof of its hypothesis can only be a matter of likelihood.

A disadvantage of the scientific method is that disproof may be a long time coming, and this will slow down progress. Disproof has, in recent times, been complemented by another technique: asking what is the most likely hypothesis behind given observations. Given the drug test result, what is the most likely explanation? Law is similar: given the evidence, is the defendant’s guilt the most likely (to the necessary high standard) explanation? On this approach, conditional probabilities come into play. Hypotheses are compared as explanations for the observations or for the evidence. Bayes’ Theorem is a means of assessing the likelihood of an hypothesis as an explanation for an observed fact.

Mistakes in logic can be identified using Bayes’ Theorem, and it is not necessary for this that actual probabilities are known. A common error in logic is to say that the probability of A, given B, is the same as the probability of B, given A. Using the example of a (any) cyclist, the error would be in saying that the probability of this test result, given that the drug was taken deliberately, is the same as the probability that the drug was taken deliberately, given this test result. Another error of logic is to suppose that the likelihood of the cyclist having cheated can be derived directly from the likelihood of the drug having been in his food. This error is that of ignoring the other probabilities of the cyclist having cheated, taking into account all the relevant facts. A Bayesian approach avoids both these sorts of errors.