Overwhelmed by prejudicial evidence

When is an error at trial insufficient to require an appeal court to quash a conviction?

The more the attention that is given to this question, the more difficult it is to answer. At least, that was the experience of appeal courts in the 2000s. Before then this question had gone largely unexamined, and appeals were decided with appellate courts deciding apparently intuitively whether miscarriages of justice were substantial enough to require the quashing of convictions.

I have considered this in discussinWeiss v The Queen [2005] HCA 81 on 16 January 2006, and see also the discussion of Grant v R (Jamaica) [2006] UKPC 2 on 20 January 2006. A difficulty was when should the appeal court act like a jury and consider the evidence and dismiss an appeal because despite the error at trial the evidence was sufficient to convict? See Bain v R (New Zealand) [2007] UKPC 33, discussed here on 11 May 2007.

The Weiss approach has been followed with minor adjustment in New Zealand: Matenga v R [2009] NZSC 18, discussed here on 9 July 2009.

An unattractive aspect of the Weiss approach is that it seemed to say that the appellate court may dismiss an appeal notwithstanding an error at trial if it considers that the evidence was sufficient to support a conviction. Obviously the ends (conviction of a person who is plainly guilty) cannot justify the means (never mind whether the trial was fair). To avoid that unpleasantness two requirements had to be met before a conviction could be upheld: the trial had to have been fair notwithstanding the error, and the evidence of guilt had to have been sufficient.

So, when does an error not affect the fairness of the trial? It is difficult to generalise without a definition of “fair trial”. I tirelessly suggest one here.

Yesterday the High Court of Australia dealt with an appeal in which the errors at trial had been so substantial that it was unnecessary, indeed impossible, for the Court to address the sufficiency of the evidence: Patel v The Queen [2012] HCA 29 (24 August 2012). The appeal was allowed because no weight could be given to the verdict, the jury were overwhelmed by the prejudice created by the admission of evidence that, because of a change in the prosecution case, was inadmissible, and the proviso didn’t apply: joint judgment of French CJ, Hayne, Kiefel and Bell JJ at [128]-[130]. Heydon J separately agreed, holding at [260] that there had been a departure from the requirements of a fair trial to such an extent that the court could not justly assess the strength of the case against the appellant, applying Gleeson CJ in Nudd v The Queen [2006] HCA 9, discussed here on 9 March 2006.

This seems to me to be a case where the unfairness was the rendering of the jury partial – that is, not impartial – through the introduction of evidence that would prejudice its judgment against the defendant.

Heydon J noted two difficult questions that did not have to be answered in this appeal [262]: to what extent should a judge disallow the introduction of evidence although no party objects to it, and when should a judge require the prosecution to provide particulars although they were not sought by the defence?

I suggest the answer to those is indicated by the meaning of a fair trial. But until judges get down to explaining what a fair trial means we are left to define it for ourselves.

I should add that in New Zealand we have revised the conviction appeal criterion by abolishing the proviso and defining miscarriage of justice to include errors that result in unfair trials: Criminal Procedure Act 2011, s 232 (not yet in force). Again, there is no definition of fair trial.

And now we are eight!

And that is 8 years of this site’s existence.

It isn’t really a blog in the sense of an invitation to readers to post comments. Instead it is an online casebook on criminal law. It now has commentary on over 500 cases from the leading appellate courts in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the USA, the UK and the European Court of Human Rights.

My purpose is to promote scholarship and research in criminal law. For a given topic you can consult the Index which refers to the relevant cases and the dates on which commentary was posted. Or if you just want to know if there is commentary on a particular case, enter one word from its title in the search box on this page.

This site is not designed to make money, and there is no information here on how to contact me. It is just an attempt to show how interesting criminal law as a technical discipline can be. But it’s not written anonymously because commentary needs to be responsible and readers should have an opportunity to assess the author’s qualifications.

I have given the Blogger version of this site (http://www.nzcriminallaw.blogspot.com ) a title that now includes the word casebook; the mirror site retains its old title as I haven’t figured out how to change it (http://www.donmathias.wordpress.com ).

When can one defendant rely on another defendant’s statement to the police?

If two defendants, A and B, are on trial together, when can A rely on part of B’s statement to the police if B does not give evidence?

Broadly, once evidence is admissible it can be used for all purposes at trial unless there is a specific restriction: Hart v R [2010] NZSC 91 at [54]. Does s 27 of the Evidence Act 2006 provide for a restriction? Its first subsection says:

“Evidence offered by the prosecution in a criminal proceeding of a statement made by a defendant is admissible against that defendant, but not against a co-defendant in the proceeding.”

Does this prevent the defence “offering” it? (“Offer evidence” is defined inclusively and widely in s 4.) Plainly no, although this has been controversial. Difficulties have concerned the meaning of “against”. The answer seems to be that which is given in Leslie-Whitu v R HC Rotorua CRI-2009-263-163, 5 October 2011, Woolford J (not available online): s 27 does not prevent A relying on B’s statement, but the statement is hearsay in relation to A. Since the evidence in relation to A must be considered separately from that in relation to B in a joint trial, A must rely on the hearsay provisions to get B’s statement admissible in his case. As hearsay the rule is that it would be inadmissible, but there are exceptions, the main one of which is s 18 of the Evidence Act 2006.

The criterion in s 18 when B is unavailable, as he would be if he chose not to give evidence, is that “the circumstances relating to the statement provide reasonable assurance that the statement is reliable”. The “circumstances” are defined in s 16.

I don’t know whether that is the best answer. It creates an uneven playing field in that to use B’s statement A must overcome the “reasonable assurance” of reliability threshold in s 18, whereas the usual requirement for admissibility is relevance, s 7, which has a low threshold: Wi v R [2009] NZSC 121, mentioned here on 11 August 2012. If the prosecution can get the statement admitted under s 27 (overcoming any objections based on unreliability, s 28, oppression, s 29, and impropriety, s 30) then A should be able to use it too without further restriction.

I suggested in a New Zealand Law Society Seminar that arguably the admissibility of B’s statement for A’s case should be governed by the common law fairness considerations.

Yesterday the High Court of Australia touched upon this in a common law context: Baker v The Queen [2012] HCA 27 (15 August 2012). However here B’s statement did not really exculpate A: see Heydon J at [70]-[76]. But basically the Court said, “Aw fieck orf moit” (I assume Australians all sound like Hughsey).

The case illustrates how the common law has diverged in various jurisdictions. Canada and England (see Baker at [54], [88]) have expanded the hearsay exceptions to permit use of B’s statement by A if it is apparently reliable, but as the judgments in Baker show, there are difficulties in establishing reliability in this context.

I still think use of the hearsay exception here is inappropriate because it is only by chance that B’s statement is hearsay – at least under our statutory definition of hearsay which does not include within it statements made previously by a witness (see the definition of “hearsay statement” in s 4). If B gives evidence he is a witness so it is not hearsay, whereas if he does not give evidence it is. Should the trial tactics of one party govern the admissibility of evidence for another? And if the prosecution can rely on B’s exculpation of A and argue it is a lie demonstrating B’s guile, why can’t A rely on it and argue it is a glimpse of B’s truthfulness?

The common law position is different because the definition of hearsay is not dependent on whether the maker of the statement, B, gives evidence. Baker remains of interest for its emphasis on the difficulties in applying a criterion of reliability.

Scholarly and incite-ful

A small but fascinating point of general interest arises in The Queen v Khazaal [2012] HCA 26 (10 August 2012). If a defendant has the evidential burden of showing an innocent purpose, can evidence of general good character be sufficient to meet that burden?

The defendant in Khazaal compiled articles from other authors, edited them with his own introduction and published them under a pseudonym as an electronic book. The book contained advocacy of violence, but Mr Khazaal had a statutory defence if his publication was not intended to facilitate assistance in a terrorist act (see [48] and [51] of the joint judgment). The evidential burden here means the burden of adducing or pointing to evidence that suggests a reasonable possibility that his purpose was innocent.

Mr Khazaal suggested that his purpose was scholarly and peaceful, and he relied partly on the book itself to meet his evidential burden. The High Court unanimously held that the evidence relied on was not inconsistent with the alleged purpose of facilitating violence (French CJ at [19], Gummow, Crennan and Bell JJ at [77], Heydon J at [110]). Mr Khazaal also relied on his past pursuit of lawful activities as a journalist and argued that the book was written in that vein, however there was insufficient evidence to support that connection [111].

So, more generally, when does evidence of good character tend to prove a matter in issue? The New Zealand Supreme Court looked at this in Wi v R [2009] NZSC 121, holding that absence of previous convictions has sufficient probative force to meet the requirement of relevance (s 7 of the Evidence Act 2006) but in a particular case it may have only a slight tendency to prove a matter of consequence [19]. I mentioned Wi in the update to my note on Maye v R (Jamaica) [2008] UKPC 35.

Just a little bit of probative value is sufficient to meet the relevance requirement. This does not mean that almost anything goes, because the court can exclude evidence under s 8 if its prejudicial effect outweighs its probative value. Would that little bit of probative value be sufficient to meet the evidential burden of raising a defence? How much “tendency to prove” does the evidential burden require. Probably this is best expressed as a tendency sufficient to raise a reasonable possibility that the issue favours the defendant.

Here we drift further from the facts of Khazaal, like French CJ’s ships passing in the night [12]. Imagine that 10% of scholars support violence, and 90% do not. Does evidence that D is a scholar mean that we can be 90% sure he does not support violence? Of course not. Relevance must not be confused with probative value. Yes, evidence that D is a scholar is relevant in the sense that D is using it to support the proposition that it tends to suggest he is not advocating violence. But the probative value (ignoring the separate question of rebuttal by evidence that D’s actual writing did in fact advocate violence) of being a scholar requires consideration of different things.

First, one looks at the population of people who advocate violence, and asks what proportion of them are scholars. Then one looks at the population of people who do not advocate violence, and asks what proportion of them are scholars. This allows one to compare the proportion of scholars among the advocates of violence with the proportion of scholars among peaceful people. That tells one whether being a scholar is more consistent with advocating violence than it is with being peaceful. The probative value of the fact of D being a scholar is this comparison of proportions.

This is not how judges reason, but the result is the same in Khazaal. French CJ pointed out that mere consistency with innocent purpose is insufficient to tend to prove innocent purpose [18]-[20]. That is, scholars exist in both the population of advocates of violence and peaceful people, and their existence among peaceful people does not of itself have probative value for the proposition that D was peaceful. I suspect that he was wrong to adopt McClennan CJ at CL’s phrase “the evidence … was entirely neutral”, because really the evidence was incomplete: it needed a context. The Court wanted more information about D’s scholarly writing and about whether that was consistent with the writing which was the subject of the allegations.

It is appropriate to reject general probabilistic reasoning when specific evidence relevant to a particular case can be obtained. This is the Schrödinger’s cat metaphor: once the box is opened and we look inside, the cat’s being dead or alive is no longer a question of probabilities. If D kept the box closed, he needed to assist the court more with probabilities, and if he opened the box, he needed to demonstrate that this writing was in line with his other work.