Proving propensity

Propensity evidence is evidence about the defendant’s conduct, not directly connected to the presently alleged offending, but which shows a propensity to act in a way that is relevant to an issue now before the court. To what, if any, standard must propensity be proved before it can be used in the process of determining the facts on the present allegation?

The United Kingdom Supreme Court has held that propensity must be proved beyond reasonable doubt before it can be taken into account in fact-finding: R v Mitchell (Northern Ireland) [2016] UKSC 55 (19 October 2016).

The Court noted that the common law had not settled this question, and legislation only covered admissibility, not standard of proof.

New Zealand common law has taken the position, almost as a mere assumption, that no particular standard of proof of propensity is required, but that instead admissible evidence of propensity is just circumstantial evidence that can be considered with all the other evidence in determining guilt on the present charge. For example, see R v Guy (1996) 13 CRNZ 589 (CA). And if the defendant had been previously charged with offending that would be evidence of a relevant propensity, but had been acquitted, evidence of the facts supporting that earlier allegation can, notwithstanding the acquittal, be given to prove the propensity: R v Degnan [2001] 1 NZLR 280, (2000) 18 CRNZ 319 (CA).

Is there necessarily an inconsistency here with Mitchell? That case only requires the propensity, not the evidence of it, to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Its effect is that the method for determining facts if propensity evidence is relied on is to consider all the admissible evidence of propensity, to assess it and to decide whether propensity is proved beyond reasonable doubt. If it is, then it may be taken into account with the evidence of the present allegation. If it is not proved to that standard it must be ignored. It is not mixed with the other evidence in the case when the fact-finder is deciding whether there is a propensity.

This is inconsistent with the New Zealand approach. See for example R v Holtz [2003] 1 NZLR 667, (2002) 20 CRNZ 14 (CA), discussed here on 14 October 2004, where no standard of proof is required except for an ultimate conclusion of guilt. It is sufficient (at [39]) that the fact-finder “conclude” or be “satisfied” that the evidence of propensity establishes the relevant propensity. There the Court “rejected a general requirement that pattern or the like must be found beyond reasonable doubt before similar fact evidence may be used”.

The Mitchell rule requires the fact-finder to ignore evidence that is in reality highly probative. The judicial consideration of a variety of solutions to this problem in HML v The Queen [2008] HCA 16 (discussed here on 26 April 2008) was not mentioned in Mitchell. In Mohammed v R [2011] NZSC 52, [2011] 3 NZLR 145, (2011) 25 CRNZ 223 (discussed here) the focus was on other aspects of how juries should be directed on propensity evidence, so this point may still be open.

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