Need witness competency be a separate issue from fairness?

The Supreme Court of Canada has split on the requirements for witness competency: R v D.A.I.
2012 SCC 5 (10 February 2012). The issue in Canada is one of statutory interpretation, and here revolved around whether an adult but mentally impaired witness needed to show an appreciation of the significance of a promise to tell the truth. The majority held that such appreciation did not need to be demonstrated because it could require some difficult abstract concepts. The policy of allowing impaired victims access to justice was of great importance.

Plainly, if the witness’s response to questioning while giving evidence was such as to deprive the right of the defence to confront the witness, there would be trial fairness issues. However at the threshold stage the question is whether the witness has an understanding of the oath or affirmation, and whether the witness is able to communicate the evidence.

We in New Zealand do not have a competency requirement for witnesses. The idea is that “No person, whether on the grounds of age, intellectual disability, or mental disorder, or on any other ground, may be disbarred from giving evidence on the ground of incompetence. … In the case of witnesses whose testimony is unhelpful – because of incoherence, for example – the judge may still exclude that evidence under the general exclusionary provisions in s 8”: NZLC R55 “Evidence” – Vol 2 at C294.

Book review: “Trial by Ambush” by Joe Karam

No objective reader of Joe Karam’s “Trial by Ambush” can possibly come to any conclusion other than that Robin Bain committed the murders of his family. It is equally obvious that David Bain must receive compensation for his years of imprisonment which were a direct result of improprieties in the investigation and failures by the authorities including the judiciary to provide a timely remedy.

It is the failings of the judiciary that are of most concern to readers of this site. Three appeal judges sat on what the Privy Council called the Third Court of Appeal in this case. Their single judgment contained, according to submissions to the Privy Council prepared by Karam and reproduced as Appendix B to his book, an astonishingly large list of errors of fact.

One judge might well make the occasional slip in summarising the evidence in a case, but how can so many errors pass by three judges? This calls into question the soundness of a recent proposal by our Law Commission that factual issues should be decided by a small panel of judges. The Commission likens this to the practice in Belgium, but China would also be a relevant point of reference.

Work done by committees tends to be distributed among members, whereas in trials it is brought home to jurors that they are individually responsible for their decision. The Court of Appeal is over-worked and under-resourced, and its judges – all of whom are of high quality by international standards – are encouraged to bring in unanimous decisions in criminal cases. That is hardly an environment that will promote accuracy.

But the errors in the Bain case began much earlier, according to Karam’s book. The police decided too quickly to charge David. They then sought evidence against him rather than being open to the alternative that Robin was the murderer. They failed to preserve, record or have analysed evidence that might have supported David’s innocence, and at an astonishingly early stage after the first trial they destroyed evidence. Evidence that was disclosed to the defence before both trials was dumped on the defence in huge volume and in a disordered state, without indication of what was significant.

This is the second aspect that is of interest here: how can the prosecution be required to exercise its disclosure obligations fairly? In the adversarial system, where the trial is a contest with a winner and a loser, procedural fairness can be sacrificed for the sake of egotistical stratagems. Trials and appeals become contests between counsel, and between counsel and the bench, to see who is cleverest.

If you think Robin’s full bladder eliminated him as a suspect, you won’t think so after reading this book. Nor will you think that David turned on the computer. Nor that David put the washing on before going on his paper run. Nor that all victims except Robin were killed before David left on his paper run. You will be convinced that Robin left bloodstained footprints in the carpet as he shot the victims – David’s feet were too big to have made them. Blood on Robin’s hands (not available for analysis, but visible in tardily disclosed photographs) was consistent with coming partly from the bloody gloves he wore, and partly from splash-back from a victim as he held the rifle. Blood on Robin’s trousers and on his shoes was consistent with his position as he pulled the trigger committing suicide, as was blood on the curtain by the computer. Robin was the psychological mess, not David. Robin fitted the profile of men who kill their families, and David didn’t. The gurgling heard by David coming from one victim was of the kind that can occur after death, and the evidence of that possibility was stronger at the second trial than it had been at the first.

According to this book, there is no reliable evidence that David was the murderer. At one stage I thought that Karam’s account of a green towel containing traces of Robin’s blood and found in the laundry left open the possibility that David put it there after killing Robin. But Robin had an injury to his hand that would have bled, and that was probably sustained in the course of a fight with his younger son who had not been killed by the first shot Robin fired at him. Robin probably wiped blood from that wound on to the towel and left it in the laundry with his other blood soaked clothes, for David to put in the wash after his paper route.

It is so hugely unlikely that David was the murderer that, as Karam says, anyone suggesting the contrary had better put up compelling evidence. There is none. It would have to be as incontrovertible as a freely given confession by David, or a reliable eyewitness to the killings, or a video recording of them. If evidence of that kind had been obtained the case would not be one of inferences, or probabilities, but one of certainties. As it is, the probabilities are so enormously in favour of David’s innocence that they amount to a certainty.

The community must be thankful for people like Joe Karam. We all are entitled to know that if the State makes an error and wrongly punishes us, we will be properly compensated. Unfortunately it is not always the State’s own officials who can be relied on to provide that assurance.

Need the punishment fit the crime?

For those of us who do not need to worry ourselves over the intricacies of Australian constitutional law, Bui v DPP (Cth)[2012] HCA 1 (9 February 2012) makes a simple point.

It is that when on a successful prosecution appeal against sentence the appellate court imposes a more lenient sentence than it considers the sentencing court could have properly imposed, it is reflecting a sentiment behind the principle against double jeopardy.
“13 It has been explained that what is referred to as the rule against double jeopardy is a manifestation of the principles expressed in the maxim nemo debet bis vexari pro una et eadem causa (a person shall not be twice vexed for one and the same cause), which is the foundation of the pleas of autrefois acquit and autrefois convict … .  The underlying idea is that the State should not be allowed to make repeated attempts to convict an individual thereby subjecting him to embarrassment, expense and ordeal and compelling him to live in a continuing state of anxiety and insecurity as well as enhancing the possibility that even though innocent he may be found guilty. The rule is properly understood as a value which underpins the criminal law.” [case citations and internal quote marks omitted]
 
There is an interesting difference between the Criminal Procedure Act 2000 (Vic), ss 289(2), 290(3), and the Criminal Procedure Act 2011 (NZ), ss 251, 257. The former specifically directs the appellate court not to take into account any element of double jeopardy involved in the appellant being sentenced again, whereas the latter makes no mention of this.
I suppose that in assessing the results of the unspoken competition between law reform bodies to come up with the perfect criminal procedure laws, Victoria should be penalised on this point. At least that is so unless you think that, willy nilly, the offender should get the sentence he deserves, later if not sooner.