Offensive or disorderly behaviour

“Offensive or disorderly” behaviour in terms of s 4(1)(a) of the Summary Offences Act 1981 are

“two sides of the same coin, both directed at the preservation of public order. On this view, “offensive” behaviour is behaviour productive of disorder. It is not sufficient that others present are offended if public order is not disrupted. On the other hand, it is not necessary that the conduct be violent or likely to lead to violence since behaviour with that effect constitutes the more serious offence described by s 3 of the Summary Offences Act. The behaviour must however be such as to interfere with use of public space by any member of the public, as through intimidation, bullying, or the creation of alarm or unease at a level that inhibits recourse to the place.”

Per Elias CJ in Morse v Police [2011] NZSC 45 (6 May 2011) at [2] and [33]. The other members of the Court agreed: Blanchard J at [62-65] (offensive behaviour may produce actual disorder or it may indirectly affect public order by wounding the feelings of or arousing anger resentment or disgust or outrage in a reasonable person who takes a balanced rights-sensitive view tolerant of the rights of the defendant); Tipping J at [69-71] (although ordinary notions of causing offence must be relevant so that those affected are substantially inhibited in carrying out the purpose of their presence at the place where the impugned behaviour occurred); McGrath J at [102-103,117] (ordinary notions of causing offence are relevant, but the interference must be beyond what a democratic society is expected to tolerate, it must be a serious interference with the standards reflected in community expectations); Anderson J at [124] (the legislation is concerned with public circumstances of more significance than discourtesy or private upset).

So that’s the behaviour and the person it must affect. I don’t agree with the Court’s media release which states that Elias CJ dissented, perhaps with Anderson J, on the description of the impugned behaviour. One must not read a case as if it were a statute, and here the required minimum for liability is the ratio. Differences in diction should not distract from the core of agreement. Tipping J expresses his disagreement with Elias CJ at [69], stressing at [70] that conduct is not offensive just because someone who is unduly sensitive to it reacts in a way that threatens public order. But Elias CJ would not have used the standard of the reaction of anyone, instead at [40] she requires tolerance of expressive behaviour by people using public places, and holds that a disproportionate reaction would make a conviction substantively unreasonable. In short, although Elias CJ is concerned to avoid subjective things like mere annoyance without disorder counting as offensive behaviour [30-31], her definition of public disorder, quoted above, includes “the creation of alarm or unease at a level that inhibits recourse to the place” which, if you accept than an annoyed person may well wish not to have been there to see the offensive behaviour, is not significantly different from applying the standard of the tolerance of the reasonable person who is conscious of the defendant’s rights. If there is a difference between the judges, it is superficial and hardly warrants being called a dissent.

The next matter is how to apply the criteria for the behaviour and the person it must affect to the facts of the case.

In Brooker v Police [2007] NZSC 30 (discussed here on 4 May 2007) there was a difference between the judges on whether a rights limitation or a rights balancing approach to this was appropriate, and the same difference is echoed by two of the judges in Morse. Elias CJ at [13-16] considered that the criminal law and limitations on rights must be capable of ascertainment in advance, and that balancing would be contrary to the need to give the legislation a meaning consistent with rights if it can (citing s 6 New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990), and that the first responsibility of the courts is interpretive.  Her point is that the legislature carried out the only necessary balancing when it formulated the offence to require an impact on public order. McGrath J, on the other hand, held that balancing is appropriate when applying the criteria to the facts, and it must be carried out in the circumstances of each case [106-107]. A different metaphor, the reaching of a threshold of interference with the rights of members of the public, was used, expressly or impliedly, by Blanchard J at [64],Tipping J at [71], Anderson J at [127]. Elias CJ also favoured an objective standard for whether the defendant’s conduct was disruptive of public order [39]. This is a direct application of the threshold requirement to the facts without engaging in an exercise of rights limitation or balancing.

The rights limiting model uses s 5 of the Bill of Rights to find the point at which a limitation on rights is justified, although it can be a matter of dispute as to whose right, the defendant or the victim, should be subject to justified limitation. The balancing model involves judicial weighing of the values that underlie the competing rights. McGrath and Thomas JJ did this in Brooker, but in Morse McGrath J combined balancing with the question of justified limitation under s 5. The threshold model is the preferred method for applying the criteria to the facts, in which the standard is what should be tolerated by the reasonable person who respects the defendant’s competing right.

The case itself had been treated erroneously by the lower courts because they had overlooked the requirement that to be offensive or disorderly in this legislative context the defendant’s behaviour needed to have a bearing on public order. Had that not been overlooked, the defended hearing would most likely have taken a different course. In view of the history of the case, and the fact that the offence was punishable only by a fine, the Court quashed the conviction and did not order a rehearing.

Morse does not address the mental elements of the offence, and we are not told whether the judges would have decided that the relevant conduct (the defendant, in protest at this country’s military involvements, burnt a New Zealand flag within view of people who were participating in a war remembrance service to mark ANZAC day) was offensive or disorderly. There seems to be no doubt that it was capable in this sense, but there was insufficient evidence about whether it actually had the necessary impact on public order (Elias CJ at [57], Blanchard J at [59], Tipping J at [73], McGrath J at [119] and Anderson J at [129-130]).

This was a hollow victory for the appellant, as Morse takes rights disputes out of this part of the law and returns the discussion to the familiar territory of reasonableness.

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