When your thought becomes my experience

Another aspect of B(SC12/2013) v R [2013] NZSC 151 (19 December 2013) is its varieties of judicial interpretation of ss 40(3)(b) and 44 of the Evidence Act 2006. Of interest to us is the extent to which this aspect of the case is authority for anything.

Here the challenged evidence (held to be inadmissible) would have been that the complainant on an earlier occasion had invited a man to her house during the day to deal with a dead mouse, and when he was there she was wearing a nightie and a dressing gown. The man dealt with the mouse and left, but he felt that the complainant had been presenting an opportunity for a sexual encounter although she had done nothing overt in that regard.

What was this evidence intended to prove? If it just proved that the complainant invited people to her house to deal with mice, in this case it was hardly relevant because that was not a fact in issue: it was inadmissible, or at least not a miscarriage of justice for it to have been ruled inadmissible. William Young J favoured this approach to the issue of admissibility.

If the evidence was sought to be adduced to prove that the complainant had engineered a situation to have a sexual encounter with the defendant just like she had before in relation to the proposed witness, it would be evidence of her sexual experience with a person other than the defendant, so its admissibility would be governed by s 44(1) and (3). This was the approach favoured in the joint judgment of McGrath, Glazebrook and Arnold JJ.

William Young J didn’t like that interpretation of the evidence or s 44 because the witness would not be testifying to an actual sexual experience, only to his impression of the complainant’s motive for his visit. William Young J would not “read up” the word “experience” in s 44(1) to include things that didn’t happen. It would have been different if the complainant had overtly suggested sexual activity on that occasion, but merely being dressed in a nightie and dressing gown wasn’t enough.

Another interpretation of the evidence is that taken by the Chief Justice: the evidence was that the complainant had a propensity to create opportunities for sexual encounters at her home, which amounted to saying she had a reputation for doing that. This evidence of reputation had to be excluded because of s 44(2). It must be said that this is the least convincing interpretation of the proposed evidence.

At [117] William Young J cogently criticises Elias CJ’s approach.

There was some obiter discussion of whether evidence of diary entries describing the complainant’s sexual fantasies would be admissible. There was no such evidence in this case. The joint judgment would put this sort of evidence into the category of “experience” within the meaning of that term in s 44(1). William Young J would not, refusing to read up “experience” to include fantasies, and refusing to include, within the expression “with any person other than the defendant”, the complainant herself.

When judges disagree over what are merely obiter dicta, what binds lower courts? When a case that directly raises the issue has to be decided, subsequent judicial reflection may favour the approach taken here by William Young J. But in the meantime greater weight should be given to the obiter dicta of the joint judgment here, simply because it is a majority opinion.

So, what is the ratio decidendi of the admissibility aspect of this case? All judges agreed that there was no miscarriage of justice arising from the evidence having been ruled inadmissible. Either it was irrelevant, or it was not of sufficient relevance to overcome the heightened relevance requirement of s 44(3), or it was inadmissible because it was reputation evidence. The majority applied the heightened relevance requirement, so the case is, from that perspective, a simple illustration of the application of s 44(1) and (3).

Legal propositions distilled from obiter dicta are not ratio decidendi, and neither are legal propositions not agreed to by a majority. There is therefore no wide ratio in this case, and it is only narrow authority on the admissibility of evidence of the same kind as that sought to be adduced here.

Perhaps you share my suspicion that the whole issue was argued under the wrong sections. The intended evidence was about the witness’s opinion of what the complainant was thinking. The governing provision is s 24:

“General admissibility of opinions

A witness may state an opinion in evidence in a proceeding if that opinion is necessary to enable the witness to communicate, or the fact-finder to understand, what the witness saw, heard, or otherwise perceived.”

Here there was nothing that the witness “saw, heard, or otherwise perceived” other than the way the complainant was dressed. Her clothing did not require an explanation in the absence of any other overt conduct. There was no other conduct that the witness could point to that could require an explanation. Therefore the proposed opinion evidence was inadmissible.

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Perverse acquittals and the limits of the law

Whether you are a speluncean explorer or a shipwrecked sailor adrift and starving, the law applies to you. Even where you enter into a contract agreeing that the ordinary law will not apply, you can only do that if some law allows you to, and even then the law requires you to stick to what you have argeed.

Can the law embrace illegality?

Are there times when a sensible person, when told what the law requires, can be permitted to say, “Oh, don’t be silly, the law’s an ass”?

Can jurors be permitted to return verdicts of not guilty that are contrary to law? These are variously called perverse verdicts, conscience verdicts, merciful verdicts, or instances of jury lenity reflecting the jury’s innate sense of justice. See the discussion here on 15 November 2013.

In very limited circumstances the law will recognise that jurors may return conscience verdicts: B(SC12/2013) v R [2013] NZSC 151 (19 December 2013). Here, on an appeal against conviction, the relevant issue was whether two verdicts were inconsistent. The focus in such appeals is on whether the conviction is lawful, not on the acquittal [105], but the acquittal is relevant to the extent that it reveals an irreconcilable error in the conviction. Opinions may differ, as they did here, on whether the acquittal could be explained logically without impugning the reasoning behind the conviction. But without a logical explanation for the inconsistency it might be possible, held the majority, to account for the acquittal as an instance of jury lenity, without impugning the conviction.

Elias CJ did not consider that this case was one of necessary inconsistency in verdicts [30]. There may have been a reasonable possibility, she held, that the prosecutor had not excluded an innocent belief in relation to that charge, while proving all the elements of the other. But she went further than that, and refused to accept that a jury may return a “lenient” verdict [28]:

” … in the core function of determining guilt or innocence I do not think there is scope for other than conscientious discharge of the responsibility to decide on the evidence and according to law.”

The majority disagreed. McGrath, Glazebrook and Arnold JJ [105]:

” … If the court finds it difficult to understand on what basis the jury accepted a complainant’s evidence at one point and not another, it is entitled to consider whether the jury may have departed from its instructions in giving a not guilty verdict, out of an innate sense of justice.”

They held that while the difference in verdicts could have a logical explanation, this was also one of those rare cases where the jury might have thought that the conviction sufficiently captured the defendant’s culpability for what was in substance a single interaction with the complainant [106].

William Young J said he agreed with the joint judgment [110], [131].

The reasoning which led the majority to accept that jury leniency can have legal effect occurs at [99], which is worth quoting in full:

“Potentially, however, jury leniency undermines the rule of law, creates uncertainty and operates unequally as between comparable defendants. [footnote: See, for example, R v Morgentaler [1988] 1 SCR 30 at [77] per Dickson CJC (with whom Lamer J joined); and Andrew D Leipold “Rethinking Jury Nullification” (1996) 82 Va L Rev 253.] Importantly for present purposes, jury leniency is in direct conflict with the premises on which jury trials are conducted, as reflected in trial judges’ instructions to juries. But while jury leniency may not be encouraged – indeed, it is actively discouraged in jury instructions – that does not necessarily mean that its existence must always be ignored. There is widespread acknowledgement that juries do sometimes apply their innate sense of justice by convicting a defendant on one count and acquitting on another, even though the evidence would support convictions on both, and a general (albeit not universal) acceptance that the fact that this sometimes happens is, on balance, a beneficial feature of the jury system (the jury acting as the conscience of the community). Where an appellate court considers that a jury’s “not guilty” verdict is explicable on this basis, it seems perverse that the court should be required to quash the conviction because it is not logically consistent with the acquittal. While logic in the law is important, it is not everything.”

As I have previously said, a perverse verdict is not available at the request of the defendant, and this case demonstrates that it is, in contrast and when rarely available at all, a weapon for the prosecutor on appeal. While it seems comforting to think that a jury might be lenient when the letter of the law conflicts with conscience, there is attraction in the Chief Justice’s position which would disallow illegality as a basis for upholding a conviction.

But there’s more in this case: propensity, reputation, prior sexual experience! … Later …

[Update: In 2015 Lord Judge referred to perverse verdicts as constitutional safeguards against barbaric laws in a discussion with Chief Justice Roberts on the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the first issue of Magna Carta, available here on YouTube.]

Control: peaceable possession of land

Pronouns and political correctness: “his”, or “his or her”?

Section 56(1) of the Crimes Act 1961 [NZ] has been politically corrected (or, more properly, gender neutralised, or – even more properly – gender balanced). The original version printed in the leading criminal text robustly reads:

“Every one in peaceable possession of any land or building, and every one lawfully assisting him or acting by his authority, is justified in using reasonable force to prevent any person from trespassing on the land or building or to remove him therefrom, if he does not strike or do bodily harm to that person.”

But online you will find this (to become the “official” version from 6 January 2014):

“Every one in peaceable possession of any land or building, and every one lawfully assisting him or her or acting by his or her authority, is justified in using reasonable force to prevent any person from trespassing on the land or building or to remove him or her therefrom, if he or she does not strike or do bodily harm to that person.”

I can tolerate a bit of this sort of thing, and my objections spring from experience: if you try to think of a way of saying something by avoiding “he or she”, and sexist language generally, you may well come up with better prose.

But s 56(1) is a hard nut to crack from that point of view, so the two versions confront us with the aesthetic question of which is the better prose, and if the former is better, the moral question whether gender balance is more important than cadence. However one would also have to take into account the need to avoid redundancy and tautology, arising from the operation of s 31 of the Interpretation Act 1999.

Strictly speaking, wrestling with this sort of problem is a matter for the Chief Parliamentary Counsel in the preparation of a revision Bill pursuant to s 31(2)(e) of the Legislation Act 2012. It can also be done when there is a reprint under s 25(1)(a) of that Act, to conform to “current drafting practice”.

This gender balance business did not concern the Supreme Court this week in Taueki v R [2013] NZSC 146 (17 December 2013), where at [26] and [42] the original version of s 56(1) is quoted. The central point decided here is that possession requires a power of control over the land or building [57]-[58]. Additional points are: “peaceable” possession means “possession that has been achieved other than in the context of an immediate or ongoing dispute. In brief, it is possession obtained and maintained before the employment of the physical force the use of which the person seeks to justify” [64]; and mistake is irrelevant: “[t]here is no scope for applying s 56 on the basis of beliefs (reasonable or otherwise) on the part of the defendant as to whether he or she enjoyed peaceable possession of the land, nor as to whether the other party was a trespasser.”

Control in context

The Court in Taueki did not look around and borrow inspiration from the law relating to drug offences. Control is a central element of offences of, or including, possession of a drug, and of permitting the use of premises for the commission of a drug offence. Control here has been interpreted judicially to mean having the power to invite or arrange for the presence of a drug, having the power to say what will be done with a drug, or having the power to invite or exclude others from premises or to prevent the commission of a drug offence on the premises.

In Taueki the appellant did not have powers of those kinds: [22]-[25]. There is thus a consistency in the meaning of control in these diverse contexts. That is hardly surprising, as the word will be given its ordinary and natural meaning unless the legislation requires otherwise.

The Court adopted Lord Browne-Wilkinson’s description of possession of land in this context as that of a person who is “dealing with the land in question as an occupying owner might have been expected to deal with it and that no-one else has done so” JA Pye (Oxford) Ltd v Graham [2002] UKHL 30, [2003] 1 AC 419 at [41], quoting from the judgment of Slade J in Powell v McFarlane (1977) 38 P & CR 452 (ChD) at 470–47; Taueki at [57].

This circumstance-dependent issue – is the defendant dealing with the land in question as an occupying owner might have been expected to deal with it? – links control to the powers of an owner, but as the Court in Taueki noted [56]: “while possession is often an incident of ownership (or other legal right), in this context, ownership of the property is not necessarily required, nor even is a claim of right, before a person will have a defence”.

So there’s room here for assistance from the usage of “control” in the context of drug offences. If that is correct, the material questions on the issue of possession here will be whether in the circumstances the defendant had the power to invite or exclude others from the land, or the power to say whether they could do a relevant thing while on the property.

When is a judicial development too late?

A simply-defined statutory offence may require detailed judicial development. Pending such development and final determination by the highest court the law may be unascertained and inaccessible.

Lower courts may develop the definition of an offence, and intermediate appellate courts may confirm that development, so that the law appears to be settled, and settled for some time, but suddenly the superior appellate court says no, everyone was wrong, here is what the ingredients of the offence really are.

In R v McRae, 2013 SCC 68 (6 December 2013) four judges – the trial judge and three appeal judges – had their definition of an offence overturned by seven judges of the Supreme Court.

The prosecutor had been able to appeal against the acquittal on a question of law: s 676(1)(a) of the Criminal Code. The Supreme Court ordered a retrial.

The defendant had been tried on five counts of uttering threats, an offence pursuant to s 264.1(1)(a) of the Criminal Code. This offence had been considered earlier this year but the Supreme Court then did not need to address the points raised in McRae: see R. v. O’Brien, 2013 SCC 2 (CanLII), 2013 SCC 2, [2013] 1 S.C.R. 7, mentioned briefly here on 31 January 2013.

The details of the definition of the offence as they were judicially elaborated need not detain us. The question I raise is, should the Supreme Court have ordered a retrial? There is no doubt that the power to make such an order existed. There could have been little objection (subject to the inaccessibility of unascertained law point mentioned above) to the first appeal court ordering a retrial. But given that the first appeal court was also wrong about the law, wasn’t the law much more inaccessible and unascertainable than is acceptable? Shouldn’t the defendant have been allowed his acquittals?

Compare the discussions of accessibility and ascertainability here on 13 March 2006, here on 9 May 2013, and here on 16 June 2013.

Common law fairness and the Evidence Act 2006[NZ]

To what extent does the Evidence Act 2006 [NZ] exclude the common law discretion to rule inadmissible evidence that was obtained, not through improper acts of officials, but through unfairness arising independently of officials?

People who can access the New Zealand Universities Law Review can find an interesting discussion of this by Don Mathieson QC, “Fair Criminal Trial and the Exclusion of ‘Unfair Evidence'” (2013) 25 NZULR 739 (October 2013). Dr Mathieson analyses a Court of Appeal decision which is currently subject to a suppression order, but which the Court has allowed to be discussed in professional publications.

So I am rather constrained in what I can say about the case here, and nor should I quote much of what Dr Mathieson says. In Adams on Criminal Law – Evidence at EA30.09(9) the central point is summarised in this way:

“The Court held that when a defendant argues that evidence such as a statement has been improperly obtained by the police, admissibility of the evidence must be determined in accordance with s 30. However, when the defendant argues that, although not improperly obtained, it would nonetheless be unfair to admit evidence against the defendant, admissibility will be governed by the exercise of the Court’s common law discretion, which continues after the Evidence Act 2006.”

Dr Mathieson argues, in effect, that the Court’s holding, summarised in the last sentence of that passage, is wrong. There is no such common law discretion, and even if there was it would now have been replaced by the provisions of the Evidence Act, in particular ss 6, 7 and 8, pursuant to either s 11(2) or s 12.

Section 12 is central to the reasoning, so I set it out here:

If there is no provision in this Act or any other enactment regulating the admission of any particular evidence or the relevant provisions deal with that question only in part, decisions about the admission of that evidence—

(a) must be made having regard to the purpose and the principles set out in sections 6, 7, and 8; and

(b) to the extent that the common law is consistent with the promotion of that purpose and those principles and is relevant to the decisions to be taken, must be made having regard to the common law.

Dr Mathieson’s argument is that this replaces whatever common law there might be on a relevant topic with law that interprets the Act in a way that, to the extent permitted, has regard to the common law. The new law is not common law – in the sense of law invented by judges in an area not covered by legislation – but rather is, collectively, decisions under s 12.

Then, applying s 7 and s 8 to the evidence that was obtained by what I might call the ‘non-official unfairness’ in the case at hand: yes, the evidence is relevant, and no, it is not excluded pursuant to the s 8 discretion. There is no resort to any posited common law discretion.

The Court of Appeal’s reasoning was (here I risk quoting [31] of the suppressed judgment):

“It would be inconsistent with the common law and the purpose of the Evidence Act which is to promote fairness to parties, to construe s 30 as excluding the common law discretion. The continued existence of the common law discretion is consistent with the purpose of promoting fairness in s 6(c) to parties, and the Court must have regard to that purpose under s 11(2). The exclusion of evidence on unfairness grounds can be seen as dealt with only “in part” (in terms of s 12) by s 30, so that decisions on the admission of evidence can still involve a consideration of what is fair to the parties, that is, irrespective of the provisions of s 30. We conclude that the common law discretion survives the Evidence Act, although s 30 governs those cases to which the section applies.”

 

You can see that this is quite a different interpretation of the effect of s 12 than that advocated by Dr Mathieson. The “decisions about the admission of that evidence” remain, in the Court’s view, common law decisions.

I wonder whether this matters, particularly where the common law on the point had been undeveloped. You could say it matters if the Act is more restrictive than the common law. The Court, developing the common law, applied by analogy such of the considerations specified in s 30 as were relevant, and concluded that the evidence was admissible. Dr Mathieson on the other hand would confine the considerations to those applicable under s 8.

A difficulty is that, pursuant to s 12, it is the “purpose and principles set out” in s 8 to which the court must “[have] regard“. Section 12 does not simply apply s 8 to the issue. Identifying the relevant purposes and principles of s 8 is not a simple matter, as none are “set out“. A rule is not the same thing as a principle. There are abstract concepts named in the section: “probative value”, “unfairly prejudicial effect”, “the proceeding”, “take into account”, “the right”, “offer an effective defence”. But the only principle apparent in s 8 is the principle that evidence must not be ruled admissible if it would be unfair to do so. Arguably this isn’t even a principle, it is a rule (“must not”). But let’s pretend it is a principle. Is this principle more restrictive than the common law?

But don’t let my ramblings deter you from reading Dr Mathieson’s splendid article. It is unfortunate that it is not more widely available.