For the curious …

To begin the eighth year of this site, I reflect on the rewards and pleasures of scholarship, here.

Scientific research on eyewitness identification evidence

Every criminal law practitioner and judge should read the amicus brief filed by the American Psychological Association in Perry v New Hampshire (cert granted, No 10-8974). It refers to research on the risks of errors in eyewitness identification evidence, and on the utility of judicial warnings to juries.

(Thanks again to Peter Tillers of Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University for pointing this out.)

Now we are seven

That’s seven years of this blog!

Usually I mark the anniversary by some repulsively self-indulgent boasting, smugly superior conceit or obnoxiously vain self-citation.

Not this time.

The relevance of expert opinion

Thanks to Peter Tillers in New York for drawing our attention to a High Court of Australia decision which includes discussion by Heydon J of an interesting point about expert evidence: Dasreef Pty Ltd v Hawchar [2011] HCA 21 (22 June 2011).

The joint judgment of French CJ, Gummow, Hayne, Crennan, Kiefel and Bell JJ did not analyse the issue in a way that made it necessary to address the point I will mention below (41), because these judges decided that in this case the testimony offered as expert opinion was not based on the witness’s specialised knowledge based on training study or experience. That requirement for admissibility being absent, they held that the trial judge had no evidence to support the conclusion he reached.

Heydon J, on the other hand, was of the view that the evidence legislation, although silent on the point, did leave room for its application. So what was the point? It was: is it necessary that there be evidence of facts upon which it is proposed that an expert should base an opinion, before the expert gives evidence of that opinion? Or, can the expert be called and give evidence of that opinion, on the understanding that evidence will subsequently be called to establish the relevance of that opinion? At 121-127 Heydon J explains why there should be a rule that relevance be established before the expert evidence is adduced.

It seems that the legislation in New Zealand leaves open the possibility that the rule favoured by Heydon J may not apply: s 25(3) of the Evidence Act 2006. Also, s 14 provides for provisional admission of evidence.

This would surely be a matter for the judge’s discretion, and would depend on how practical it would be to deal with expert evidence that had been given but which was subsequently found not to be admissible. In judge alone trials it would not be likely to matter, but in jury trials questions of fairness may arise if there was a real risk that the jury would be rendered partial as a result of having heard the inadmissible evidence.

Legal aid eligibility and fair trial requirements

At a time when we are considering the implications of restricting the availability of legal aid, the Supreme Court of Ireland reminds us that the constitutional right to a fair trial may require legal aid to be granted, even where a defendant is not at risk of imprisonment: Joyce v DJ Brady [2011] IESC 36. O’Donnell J, for the Court, observed [13]:

” … for a person who has never appeared in court before and who faces the possibility of conviction for theft an offence of dishonesty with all that that entails for prospects of employment, I do not think it could be considered anything other than serious.

“[14] It is worth considering what would be involved in a professional defence of the case. It would be necessary to know that the offence itself was indictable but could be tried in the District Court but only with the agreement of the accused. It would be necessary therefore to form some view as to which court would be the most desirable from this accused’s point of view. If the matter was to proceed in the District Court it would be also necessary to know that an application could be made for disclosure which might inform the accused of the case which he had to meet. It might also be necessary to know the extensive law that has grown up in recent years about the significance of CCTV evidence, and more particularly, its absence. Careful consideration would have to be paid, to both the legal and factual basis upon which it could be said that the actions of the two women in the Spar shop could be attributed to the applicant. In addition to all of these steps a lawyer would have to consider what witnesses would be available for the defence. Leaving aside the statutory formula for one moment, if the sole question for a court was whether anyone would think this was the sort of case that could be fairly defended by a litigant on their own whilst suffering perhaps from that “fumbling incompetence that may occur when an accused is precipitated into the public glare and alien complexity of courtroom procedures, and is confronted with the might of a prosecution backed by the State” (State (Healy) v. Donoghue [1976] I.R. 325, 354), then there could in my view, be only one correct answer.”

“[16] … The constitutional right, from which an entitlement to legal aid for impecunious defendants was deduced is, primarily, the right to a trial in due course of law guaranteed by Article 38 of the Constitution. That is a right to a fair trial; it cannot be reduced to a right not to be deprived of liberty without legal aid. There is something fundamentally incongruous in the contention that a trial for theft would be unfair if the accused was convicted (perhaps having pleaded guilty) and sent to jail for even a day, but that a trial of the selfsame offence including the same facts and issue of law would become fair if the accused were only fined or required to do community service if convicted, even though such conviction would brand him a thief.”

“[20] … given the unpredictability of court proceedings, and the fact that the full facts may emerge if at all on a full trial, then unless the test as to whether an accused might face a risk of imprisonment were applied with considerable flexibility there could be a serious risk of confusion, error, waste of time and, not least, injustice.”

If legal aid is not available to a defendant who wants legal representation but who cannot, in reality, afford to pay a lawyer, fair trial requirements may prevent a conviction. See Condon v R [2006] NZSC 62, discussed here on 24 August 2006, and other cases under the heading “Counsel” in the Index to this site.

Financial criteria limiting the availability of legal aid cannot justly be applied inflexibly. The real cost of private legal representation must be weighed against a defendant’s actual disposable income. This is not to say that legal aid should be a gift, as arrangements can be made for reimbursement of state funding by the defendant on an instalments basis.

Evidence of vulnerable witnesses – pre-trial recording

Only rarely will it be appropriate for a court to permit pre-trial recording of the evidence, including cross-examination, of a vulnerable witness: R v M (CA335/2011) [2011] NZCA 303 (9 August 2011, published in redacted form 19 August 2011).

The judgment discusses the reasons for and against this procedure and concludes that it would take a compelling case to overcome the disadvantages. Those disadvantages include the increased use of court resources and time, the increased costs in all counsel having to prepare twice, greater delays for accused persons as the reasons favouring fast-tracking of child sex cases would no longer apply and there would be ongoing stress for family members.

And, more generally, the defence is not required to show its hand before trial and forcing it to do so could adversely affect fairness of the trial, the judge would need to be sure that full disclosure had been made to the defence before pre-recording of cross-examination, the sole advantage to complainants would be the reduction in delay before giving evidence, the jury could not properly assess the spontaneous reaction of the defendant to the complainant’s evidence, the jury would not be able to ask questions of the complainant unless he or she was required to attend at the trial, and it is highly likely that such attendance would be required in the interests of fairness if it were claimed by the defence that new topics for cross-examination had arisen from information obtained after the pre-trial recording had been completed.

Extradition, separation of powers, abuse of process and the Westminster model

Extradition can be opposed on abuse of process grounds: Fuller v Attorney-General (Belize) [2011] UKPC 23 (9 August 2011) at [58]. The relevant sort of abuse of process would be [5]:

“(i) making use of the process of the court in a manner which is improper, such as adducing false evidence or indulging in inordinate delay, or (ii) using the process of the court in circumstances where it is improper to do so, as for instance where a defendant has been brought before the court in circumstances which are an affront to the rule of law, or (iii) using the process of the court for an improper motive or purpose, such as to extradite a defendant for a political motive.”

An application for habeas corpus may be granted and a stay ordered. In the absence of an express constitutional provision to the contrary, it is a characteristic of democracies in the Westminster tradition that separation of powers places in the hands of an independent and impartial judiciary the protection of fundamental human rights [38-41]. The decision on whether extradition would be an abuse of process is not therefore one exclusively for the executive to make.