Modifying, or applying, the law

Appellate courts sometimes have to extend, modify, or reshape existing law to recognise matters of public policy. More usually, they merely apply existing law. These contrasting roles are illustrated in two recent decisions of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

When a statute is silent on the matter, how is a court to decide whether evidence should be ruled inadmissible because the way it was obtained departed from prescribed procedures? One criterion can be whether the error can be corrected by further investigation. If the test that was done destroyed a sample that cannot be replaced, the result of the test should be inadmissible.

This criterion was mentioned in Public Prosecution Service v McKee (Northern Ireland) [2013] UKSC 32 (22 May 2013). The difference between an unrepeatable test and a repeatable one is discussed at [13]-[15]: a sample collected by a breathalyser device is unrepeatable unless an error is immediately apparent (the machine fails to work properly), so if it is later discovered that an unapproved device was used the result is inadmissible. But if, as in this case, an unapproved electronic device was used to read the defendant’s fingerprint, the error could easily be checked at any time by the defendant providing another sample for analysis by, for example, an independent expert. Where opportunities exist for checking a result by repeated testing, an error in the initial procedure should not require the initial result to be held inadmissible.

Well, one might wonder what has happened to the burden of proof here. The policy behind this shift is indicated at [17], and it seems that if the fingerprint was inadmissible here the implications for other cases would have been unacceptable, with limitations on the ability of the police to prove crimes and on the opportunities for defendants to exculpate themselves.

But still. Was the executive wasting its time when it made an Order for the prescribing of procedures for electronic reading of fingerprints? Has the prosecutor in effect asked the Supreme Court to repeal the procedures that were eventually prescribed? Could the Northern Ireland police in the relevant period (1 March 2007 to 12 January 2010) have used any fingerprint reading device they wished to? Apparently yes, for there was no approved device for the first two years of that period [3]. Obviously there was great pressure on the Court to find a solution and avoid the need for retrospective legislation.

Another recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom finds the Court exercising its less adventurous function, that of applying established law, on two matters: when, for the purpose of measuring delay, is a person charged with an offence, and when does apparent bias exist arising from judicial comments adverse to the defendant: O’Neill v Her Majesty’s Advocate (No 2) (Scotland) [2013] UKSC 36 (13 June 2013).

The law on when, for this purpose, a person is charged was established in Ambrose v Harris, Procurator Fiscal, Oban (Scotland) [2011] UKSC 43 (6 October 2011), discussed here on 7 October 2011. On the facts of O’Neill the defendants were well aware, at the time they now contended was when they were charged, that the police did not intend to charge them. They were like the defendant in Cadder v HM Advocate [2010] UKSC 43, discussed here, but without reference to the facts, on 27 October 2010, and absence of access to legal advice at that time was irrelevant because the defendant’s knew their rights and exercised them [35]. So the first interviews, years before the later ones which was when the defendants were charged, was not the one from which time ran for the purpose of determining whether there was unreasonable delay in bringing them to trial.

As to apparent bias, in O’Neill there were two trials: the first involving alleged sexual abuse and the second, the following week, murder. After the jury at the first trial convicted them the judge said to the defendants: “…it is clear that you are both evil, determined, manipulative and predatory paedophiles of the worst sort.” The same judge presided at the second trial. The Supreme Court referred to the established law on apparent bias [47], [49], including Helow v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2008] UKHL 62 (22 October 2008), discussed here on 23 October 2008, and held that here the judge had done no more than it was his duty to do [53]-[55]. The comments were not gratuitous and were within the scope of the proper performance of the judge’s duties, as a risk assessment was required and the defendants were entitled to some indication of what sentence they might expect. Importantly, no-one involved in the trials raised at the relevant times any objection to the judge’s conduct:

“[56] … the fair-minded and informed observer would take account of the fact that it did not seem to occur to those with the most obvious interest to do so, or their advisors, that the judge had trespassed beyond the proper performance of his duties when he commented on the appellants’ character.”

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