Decision models for the stay of criminal proceedings

Legal terminology at common law can change over time.

For example, exclusion of improperly obtained evidence is decided by what used to be called a discretion, but which is now called an application of judgement as a matter of law. The difference between exercises of judgement and exercises of discretions is not always easy to see. Bail decisions are currently called discretionary, but who knows whether they might come to be called exercises of judgement?

The only practical difference is in how they are approached on appeal. This difference has arisen because, during the latter part of the twentieth century, the common law developed powers of review, applicable to all decisions affecting people’s legal interests including decisions of judges in lower courts.

On review, the correctness of the method applied by the decision-maker is determined, and this involves looking to see whether certain kinds of errors occurred. These errors are: erroneous application of principle, wrongly taking into account irrelevant matters, not taking into account relevant matters, or being plainly wrong. If one or more of those errors occurred the review court will usually remit the issue back for determination in the correct way, and only occasionally will the review court be in a position to make the determination itself. The review court acknowledges the advantages that the decision-maker had in seeing and hearing witnesses, or in having special expertise in the relevant subject.

Review applies to discretionary decisions. What is usually called “general appeal” applies to exercises of judgement. On a general appeal the court will, if it finds that an error occurred, apply its own view of the appropriate outcome. There has to be a demonstrable error, and this is called the error principle. On general appeal the court can hear evidence if necessary, but usually the evidence taken in the court below is sufficient.

There will obviously be overlap between errors that qualify to come within the error principle and errors that qualify for purposes of review. Nevertheless, as the law currently is, the difference in the form of proceedings can lead to very different outcomes resulting from the same sort of errors. This makes the classification of a decision as either discretionary (review) or a matter of judgement (general appeal) rather important.

The point I am making from all this is that the common law can create distinctions which are difficult to apply and yet which have serious implications as to outcome.

The decision to exclude improperly obtained evidence (now a matter of judgement but it used to be a discretion) had developed at common law but is now, in New Zealand, governed by statute and therefore will be elaborated in case law. By “case law” I mean judicial interpretation of legislation, as opposed to common law which is entirely judge-made. There are other ways of using the term common law, but that is what I mean. The admissibility of improperly obtained evidence is determined by applying a relatively clear decision model. I mean that the model is clear, even if the result of its application in individual cases may not be easy to predict. This model is a balancing of factors favouring admission against factors favouring exclusion, the result being assessed in terms of the need for an effective and credible criminal justice system. This need could be imagined as a sort of scale to indicate the consequences of where the balance has come to rest.

That model, or method for making the decision, is conceptually clear, although only lawyers and judges and people who have made a study of the subject are likely to have sufficient knowledge of the case law to understand what the balancing factors are and how the scale distinguishes between admissible and inadmissible evidence by using precedent to establish markers for future reference.

But, significantly for what I will say below, the factors favouring admission of improperly obtained evidence are dominated by the seriousness of the alleged offending in the particular case. Therefore it is important to have a clear way of deciding what is a serious offence. At common law the criterion was that the starting point for sentencing would be in the region of four years’ imprisonment. Subsequent case law has followed that, but in 2011 some doubt was cast on that in the Supreme Court, arising from a different view expressed by at least one judge with probably some support from one other, although the decision of the Court does not seem to have been intended to make a change that would require overruling a large number of decided cases. That different view was that seriousness should be measured by the maximum penalty for an offence.

Over the last few years in New Zealand the courts have been particularly concerned with how to decide whether to stay criminal proceedings. One difficulty that seems to have been avoided is deciding whether a decision to stay is discretionary or a matter of judgement. It seems to be the latter, although before the difference in terminology emerged the cases may well have called it discretionary. But what is the model for making the decision?

There is no statutory guidance on this. It is purely a common law matter. In Wilson v R [2015] NZSC 189 (14 December 2015) the model devised in England was used. Unfortunately this law uses the term “discretion” in an historical sense from before the review powers developed to the extent that they have, so that discretion here means an exercise of judgement:

“[51] … a judge considering a stay application was required to weigh the countervailing considerations of policy and justice and then to decide in the exercise of his or her discretion whether there has been an abuse of process ‘which amounts to an affront to the public conscience and requires the criminal proceedings to be stayed.’” [footnotes omitted, here and in the extracts quoted below]

Blanch though we may at the “his or her”, it looks as though this reference to public conscience is to a scale, of the sort I mentioned above in relation to improperly obtained evidence. Countervailing considerations are weighed against this scale.

Important among the balancing factors:

“[54] … the gravity of the alleged offence was a factor of ‘considerable weight’ for a court undertaking the balancing process to determine whether to stay proceedings on abuse of process grounds.”

And, of great interest in clearing up any confusion over how to assess the seriousness of the alleged offending, it is the starting point for sentencing, not the maximum penalty, that is relevant. This follows from, as it turns out, the majority’s resort to what was really the model applicable to the admissibility of improperly obtained evidence, and their description of the offending here as “moderately serious” [92(a)] although it included supply of LSD (maximum life imprisonment).

Unfortunately the model for deciding stays was significantly muddled by reliance on the following common law dictum:

“[54] … ‘The central question for the court in all these cases is as to where the balance lies between the competing public interests in play: the public interests in identifying criminal responsibility and convicting and punishing the guilty on the one hand and the public interest in the rule of law and the integrity of the criminal justice system on the other. Which of these interests is to prevail?’”

The majority judgment in Wilson concluded on this:

“[60] … when considering whether or not to grant a stay in a second category case [that is, one where the fairness of the trial is not in issue], the court will have to weigh the public interest in maintaining the integrity of the justice system against the public interest in having those accused of offending stand trial. In weighing those competing public interests, the court will have to consider the particular circumstances of the case. While not exhaustive, factors such as those listed in s 30(3) of the Evidence Act will be relevant, including whether there are any alternative remedies which will be sufficient to dissociate the justice system from the impugned conduct. In some instances, the misconduct by the state agency will be so grave that it will be largely determinative of the outcome, with the result that the balancing process will be attenuated. The court’s assessment must be conducted against the background that a stay in a second category case is an extreme remedy which will only be given in the clearest of cases.”

This has changed what should have been the scale into a balancing factor. Plainly the integrity of the criminal justice system should be an absolute requirement, not something that can be traded away in the interests of prosecuting serious crime.

Once that is accepted it follows that the model that should be used here is not the sort of balancing where two competing interests are measured against a scale, but instead it is a movement along a single scale of magnitude, going one way or the other and reaching a resting point on that scale. It is like a thermometer, not a balance. It isn’t really weighing anything, just measuring the intensity of the wrongful conduct of officials and seeing if that reaches a point where the integrity of the criminal justice system is compromised.

I think the Chief Justice was right (dissenting on the issue of whether a stay should have been ordered but agreeing in the result of the appeal), to emphasise, uncontroversially,

“[121] … the critical question is not the strength of the prosecution evidence or the weakness of the defence, but the effect of the defect on the legitimacy of the trial.

“[123] … the critical issue … was whether the trial could be legitimate given the serious irregularity.”

However she did not distance herself to any marked extent from describing the decision model as one of balancing, and instead retreated from clarity by adopting a rather flaccid dictum:

“[133] … general guidance on how the jurisdiction is to be exercised is not useful when ‘an infinite variety of cases could arise’.”

Decision models are designed to deal with an infinite variety of cases. Overall the ultimate issue of whether a stay should have been ordered in this case, which seems to conclude the Antonievic saga, came down to a vote count, without much clarity being given for future guidance. The majority’s application of the law to the appeal is really a retreat to the issue whether exclusion of the evidence was appropriate (using the conventional balancing exercise applicable to that decision) and then a recognition that the impropriety here did not go beyond what could appropriately be remedied by exclusion of some of the evidence.

So, to return to my theme of how the common law terminology and methods can change over time, a decision to stay criminal proceedings is no longer appropriately described as discretionary, but is a matter of judgement. On appeal the court will come to its own view of what should have been done. The decision model is currently that of weighing, but, I suggest, it should ultimately develop into a measure of the intensity of wrongdoing by officials to determine whether it affects the integrity of the criminal justice system. It is a different model from that applicable to improperly obtained evidence, and it should only apply if exclusion of tainted evidence is inadequate to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system. Where the wrongdoing colours the obtaining of evidence, the first decision will be the balancing required to determine the admissibility of that evidence, and then, if the wrongdoing was particularly bad it should be assessed for its impact on the integrity of the judicial proceedings. As has long been recognised, the position is different if the wrongdoing affects the fairness of a trial adversely to a defendant, for then a stay must be ordered.