To retry or not to retry, that is the question

A strong legal system will ensure a fair trial for a defendant who is obviously guilty of a serious crime. R v Maxwell [2010] UKSC 48 (judgment given on 20 July 2011) is centred on the tension between the court’s need to have its proceedings untainted by police misconduct and the need to uphold the public interest in conviction of the guilty.

After the Criminal Cases Review Commission had exposed serious police misconduct in the collection of evidence against the accused, the Court of Appeal quashed his conviction for a particularly vile murder. However, while he was serving his sentence and when his conviction was being investigated the defendant made admissions which supported an inference of guilt. The Court of Appeal decided to order a retrial because of this new evidence. That decision was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Were the new admissions tainted by the police misconduct that had led to his conviction and sentence?

The Court split 3-2 on this.

The problem of when events have moved on sufficiently from police misconduct to leave untainted any evidence subsequently discovered often arises in the context of improperly conducted searches. See for examples, R v Wittwer, discussed here on 6 June 2008, Gafgen v Germany, discussed here on 3 July 2008 and again on 25 June 2010, R v Ogertschnig and Police v Chadwick both discussed here on 26 October 2008.

The difference between the judges in Maxwell turned on whether the “but for” test was conclusive: if the admissions would not have been obtained but for the impropriety, they are tainted. Or was this just one matter to be considered in the balance?

You might think it obvious that since Mr Maxwell was in prison serving a sentence that had been imposed as a result of a substantial miscarriage of justice which was of such a magnitude that a stay of proceedings could have been granted ([11]) to prevent an abuse of process, his admissions were tainted.

When judges are resisting coming to a conclusion that should be obvious, they tend to call the case a hard one. A cynic might say it wouldn’t be hard if they got it right. Lord Dyson repeatedly referred to this case as difficult, and Lord Rodger also noted the Court of Appeal’s difficult decision, Lord Mance didn’t find it an easy case, but Lord Brown dissenting didn’t find it difficult at all ([105]). Lord Rodger acknowledged that he had changed his mind since the hearing; had he not done so, the result of this appeal would have been different.

From this you can guess that the majority held that the admissions were not tainted and that the Court of Appeal had rightly ordered a retrial. Lord Dyson delivered the leading judgment in which he reasoned that the admissions were voluntary and were made in what Mr Maxwell then perceived to be his own interests [26]. So, while they would not have been made but for the tainted proceedings, there were other relevant factors to take into account. Only one [31] was mentioned here: the seriousness of the offending (but Lord Brown at [104] adds the strength of the case against the defendant as another). Lord Dyson also accepted that the Court of Appeal was right to think that the admissions were untainted in the sense that the police did not intend to obtain them when they were indulging in the serious misconduct [32].

This reasoning seems a bit fragile. Lord Dyson also thought that there are two balancing exercises: a narrow one to decide whether there had been an abuse of process, and a wider one to decide whether to require a retrial [21]. But, you might think, a retrial would be pointless if the evidence was inadmissible on abuse of process grounds, and if the abuse was not sufficient to exclude the evidence, how could there be an objection to a retrial? Wasn’t Lord Brown right to say [98] in his dissent that it is really all one question of balancing the conflicting public interests of convicting the guilty on the one hand and maintaining the rule of law and the integrity of the criminal justice system on the other?

The result is fact-specific, and Lord Brown recognised [103] that if Mr Maxwell had made his admissions after his conviction was overturned there would have been no objection to a retrial.

Lord Collins, also dissenting, added [115] that a retrial was inappropriate because of the seriousness of the police misconduct, the fact that the admissions would not have been made but for the conviction so procured, and Mr Maxwell had served a substantial sentence.

Well, you can’t say it isn’t an interesting case. There are some useful summaries of the law on stays of proceedings [13–14], abuse of process [15-16], and of course the interests of justice in relation to deciding whether to order a retrial. The Court did not find it necessary to decide whether the duty to stay proceedings to prevent an abuse of process where evidence has been improperly obtained is properly conceived as a balancing exercise involving the seriousness of the offending: see my discussion of Warren v Attorney-General of the Bailiwick of Jersey on 31 March 2011. Where a stay would, as here, have been appropriate at trial, the court is saying that regardless of whether the defendant is guilty, the official impropriety was so serious that mere exclusion of tainted evidence would be insufficient to uphold the administration of justice. The admissibility decision does take into account the seriousness of the offence, but here the court says the impropriety has outweighed that. In such circumstances, subsequent discovery of new evidence of guilt would be irrelevant. Existing statutory provisions empowering courts to permit retrials of acquitted persons do not apply where stays have been ordered, nor do they require the seriousness of the offence to be taken into account, partly because they only apply to serious offences or to all offences where an acquittal was obtained by the defendant’s perversion of the course of justice (obviously I generalise here: check your own statutes).

The misconduct here was indeed something rotten in the state of England. Like the ghost it craved justice but the new day brought new concerns

” … It lifted up its head and did address

Itself to motion like as it would speak;

But even then the morning cock crew loud,

And at the sound it shrunk in haste away

And vanish’d from our sight.”

Substantive and procedural fairness

Procedure is the means by which the law is brought to life. It converts words to actions. The law recognises a right to a fair trial, and this is a substantive right. To convert fairness from a right to a reality, rules of procedural fairness have developed. These rules will be effective to the extent that they produce trials that are substantively fair.

We need to know what a fair trial is in substance, and by what procedure to get it. The scope of a court’s inherent power to create procedures that have implications for trial fairness was considered in Al Rawi v The Security Service [2011] UKSC 34 (13 July 2011). Note the helpful summary provided in the link at the top of the judgment.

This case concerned an extension to the Public Interest Immunity procedures (as to which see R v Davis [2008] UKHL 36, noted here 19 June 2008) which is called the “closed material procedure”. This would go beyond PII by allowing the judge to see – and to decide the case on – material not shown to a party, and by allowing judgments to be given that were similarly not disclosed. The Supreme Court held (I generalise here and so am a little inaccurate in the interests of brevity) by a majority that only the legislature could create procedures that departed from the fundamental principles of open justice and natural justice.

While the Court recognises the power of Parliament to make procedural laws that limit the open justice principle and the natural justice principle, does it concede that the courts would require proceedings to continue if those laws had the effect in a particular case of making the trial substantively unfair? Would there be a difference in this between criminal and civil cases?

(20 marks)

Changing perceptions of fairness

The law seems to move rather slowly for poor people in Trinidad and Tobago, if Krishna v The State (Trinidad and Tobago) [2011] UKPC 18 (6 July 2011) is anything to go by. The murder occurred on 26 May 1984, the conviction at trial was on 12 January 1988, the appeal to the Court of Appeal was dismissed on 5 October 1995, and the Privy Council quashed the conviction, refusing to order a retrial, just the other day.

The case is a lesson in how perceptions of trial fairness can change over time. The trial seems to have been conducted according to the law as it then was as far as a direction to the jury on the reason the judge had ruled a confession admissible was concerned. The judge told the jury that he had decided that the statement had been made voluntarily. The law on this changed subsequently, so that it is no longer proper for the judge to reveal to the jury a decision on admissibility: Mitchell v The Queen (Bahamas) [1998] UKPC 1; [1998] AC 695. This was therefore an error relevant to this appeal.

Another ground of appeal was the failure of the judge to give a proper accomplice direction. The Court of Appeal had applied the proviso on this point, but the Board considered this to be a material irregularity in the context of the judge’s positive comments about that witness. The law on accomplice directions had been established in Davies v Director of Public Prosecutions [1954] AC 378, so this is not a point about changing perceptions of fairness.

A third ground of appeal was that the judge had not given an adequate good character direction. The Board considered that on its own this would not have been sufficient to shake the safety of the conviction, and that because this was not a case where the defendant had given evidence and put his credibility against that of other witnesses, it would ignore this ground. But significant for my point about changing perceptions of fairness is the increased importance of good character directions that was established in developments in the law after this trial: R v Aziz [1996] AC 41. Had the trial occurred after Aziz, a stronger good character direction would have been required, although in this case its absence may not have been decisive (compare Brown v R (Jamaica) noted here 21 April 2005; Gilbert v R (Grenada) noted here 29 March 2006).

Mr Krishna was ordered, after 23 years in custody as a sentenced prisoner, to be immediately released:

“Strong though the evidence against the appellant was, the Board is unable to conclude that the jury would have inevitably convicted the appellant if these irregularities had not occurred.”

Will there be an award of compensation? Better not to hold one’s breath. Clearly the trial had been unfair, because it could not be said that the jury was impartial: the judge’s comments on voluntariness indicated a preference for the police witness’s credibility, and lack of an accomplice warning also told against impartiality. Given that the trial had not been fair, the conviction could not stand. The Board’s comments on the strength of the case against the appellant were made in the context of whether to order a new trial, and as one was not ordered, compensation would be appropriate even under the meanest regimes; see my discussion of compensation here on 15 May 2011.

When time is broke …

“What is dawn in the city to an elderly man standing in the street looking up rather dizzily at the sky?”

This sentence from the penultimate paragraph of Virginia Woolf’s work of consummate genius, “The Waves”, has been with me since I first read it in the ’70s. So has Shakespeare’s wonderful

“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”

Time’s measurement has in the last six weeks caused ructions in the United Kingdom, where the legislature is set to uphold a practice which was based on a misconception about time. An interpretation of provisions allowing the police to detain suspects for questioning for no longer than a specified period, which could be extended, had been followed without judicial consideration for over 20 years. Then someone said, just a minute, is this legal, what does the statute mean? It did not mean what it had been assumed to mean: R (On the Application of the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police) v Salford Magistrates’ Court [2011] EWHC 1578 (Admin).

The legislature seems eager to establish the position as what the police had thought it to have been rather than what it probably seemed to the original enactors to have been. The police snap their fingers, and the legislature obeys.

In a general sense, the interpretative dispute was over whether time should be measured as if it flows continuously from a specified moment, or as if it is a series of discrete periods which are to be considered in their aggregate.

The kind of people who are reminded by this of passages from Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare will also remember that Zeno’s arrow paradox cautions us against the perils of dividing time, while his tortoise paradox shows that division of events can also be problematic.

Don’t let me spoil this one by quoting …

There are rare moments when a brilliant judgment makes others look vapid and pathetic. So it is with Judge Bonello’s roasting of the House of Lords and of the United Kingdom government’s arguments in Al-Skeini v United Kingdom [2011] ECtHR 1093 (7 July 2011). Even the Grand Chamber judgments with which he concurred seem inept by comparison, fumbling with a subject which he has firmly in his grasp. Compulsory reading for anyone who would be an advocate or a judge.

Sorts of fairness: abuse of process, plea bargaining and the stay of proceedings

There is something unsettling about R v Nixon, 2011 SCC 34 (24 June 2011). It is the possibility that an issue of trial fairness may be determined by a balance between societal interests and individual concerns.

The conceptual scheme that allows this possibility was set out in the Court’s judgment, delivered by Charron J, at [33-42]. The first point is unexceptional: there are two categories of abuse of process – those which concern trial fairness, and those which raise the integrity of judicial process [36]. The unsettling thing comes next [38]:

” … Achieving the appropriate balance between societal and individual concerns defines the essential character of abuse of process.”

Nixon had nothing to do with trial fairness (this was hesitantly – because of lack of clarity in the submissions – recognised at [55]). It was about what can be called public policy fairness: whether in this case a plea bargain could be rejected by a more senior prosecutor. That sort of fairness does indeed involve a balance between societal interests and individual concerns. Instead of calling it public policy fairness, you could call it “the proper and fair administration of criminal justice” as Charron J does at [63]. My impression is that the conceptual framework that emerged from the precedents relied on in Nixon wrongly equates substantial fairness with administrative fairness.

The placing of trial fairness (that is, not public policy fairness) in the first category of abuse of process and within the balancing exercise was purportedly illustrated at [39-40] by reference to a case concerning whether requiring the defendant to undergo a third trial after two juries had failed to agree was an abuse of process. That case, R v Keyowski, 1988 CanLII 74 (SCC), [1988] 1 S.C.R. 657, was really about public policy fairness. There was no suggestion that a third trial there would not itself be a fair trial.

It is easy to confuse trial fairness with public policy fairness. I suggested that the Privy Council did this in Boolell v The State (Mauritius) [2006] UKPC 46, noted here on 18 October 2006.Canada recognises that the defendant’s right to a fair trial is an absolute right, not subject to balancing: for example R v Ahmad, 2011 SCC 6, discussed here on 22 February 2011. This makes the framework of analysis set out in Nixon rather misleading.Aside from that difficulty, Nixon makes some useful points about the scope of prosecutorial discretion and its relationship with the court’s duty to prevent an abuse of process.

I should add that while a balancing of competing interests will determine whether public policy supports a finding of abuse of process, a balancing of competing interests will not determine whether a trial was or would be fair. Yes, balancing of subsidiary rights may be required in order to resolve an issue, but once that balancing is done the result must be assessed for compliance with the defendant’s right to a fair trial. An illustration is R v H [2004] UKHL 3, at [36], concerning whether a trial could be fair without disclosure of the identity of a witness.

Furthermore, abuse of process as originally conceived was thought to cover a relatively narrow field of wrongs, but it has since been recognised that it is a more general concept. Once one adds within its scope the issue of trial fairness, this extended application is evident. Any substantial miscarriage of justice can be said to have caused trial unfairness and so be an abuse of process. That includes anything that would give rise to a successful appeal against conviction. More interesting is the choice of remedy once such an error has been identified. Can it be put right by a warning to the jury? Should it result in exclusion of evidence that otherwise would have been admissible? Or, most drastically, should the proceedings be stayed? Different forms of decision process apply to the choices. When a judge has to decide whether to warn a jury, or to exclude evidence, the decision is reached by the well known weighing of probative value against risk of illegitimate prejudice. When the choice is between warning the jury and staying the proceedings, the decision turns on whether there would be an unacceptable risk of an unfair trial, and that is not a balancing exercise. When the choice is between excluding tainted evidence and staying the proceedings, the decision is one of public policy balancing. I have discussed this in more detail in “The Duty to Prevent an Abuse of Process by Staying Criminal Proceedings”.

What price access to justice?

Today our new Legal Services Act 2011 comes into force, just as we are digesting Lady Hale’s Sir Henry Hodge Memorial Lecture, “Equal Access to Justice in the Big Society“. There is thoughtful comment on this lecture at UKSCblog on 30 June 2011 by Anita Davies.

Our legal aid system is said to cost too much, and the government seeks to reduce what it calls a “$402 million dollar gap in the legal aid budget”.

Of course this “gap” is the difference between what provision of legal aid has actually cost and what the government would like it to cost. It is, if you like, a budgeting aspiration. If we were a wealthier country, the cost of legal aid would be of no concern. I state that truism to emphasise that the government’s concern is fiscal.

I am just focusing on the money here because it is singled out as a government goal. Other goals have been addressed in the new legislation, and these concern the quality of legal representation. There is nothing wrong with that. One of the ways by which the government intends to improve the quality of legal representation is by increasing the quantity of criminal work handled by officers of the Public Defence Service. Again, I see nothing wrong with that. In fact I think it is a miracle that someone persuaded the previous government that public money should be spent on training lawyers.

One of the sources of legal aid costs in criminal cases is, as Lady Hale points out, the large amount of work that is required of lawyers at the early stages of even cases that are not particularly serious. Case management and its associated workloads have not proven to have saved money.

On the other hand (this is me again, not Lady Hale) there seems to be no shortage of lawyers who are willing to do legal aid work. The obvious cost-saving strategy would be to decrease legal aid rates of pay. This would deter some lawyers from any involvement with legal aid, but new lawyers would step in to fill this “gap”. They would, thanks to the quality of representation safeguards, be fit for the job. Theoretically anyway.

That would satisfy people who think lawyers earn too much money. Perceptions of lawyers’ pay are probably exaggerated by the publicity given to some extreme examples. But even those lawyers who have received large legal aid remuneration have worked very hard for it. Against the median pay received by legal aid lawyers, once outliers are ignored, one would have to weigh the time spent, the stress of the work, the office overheads, and the risks of complaints of negligence made by disaffected former clients, before deciding whether lawyers are paid too much.

The real problem may be that the government has an unrealistic expectation of how small the budget for legal aid can be.