Thursday, August 06, 2020

Review: “Expert Evidence About Memory in New Zealand Sexual Violence Trials and Appellate Courts 2001 to 2020” by Suzanne Blackwell, Fred Seymour and Sarah Mandeno (June 2020).

This Report is essential reading for counsel who are considering calling expert psychological evidence with a view to challenging the accuracy of a complainant’s evidence in a sexual violence case. It is also essential reading for any psychologist who has to decide whether proposed testimony in such a case will withstand attack for scientific unsoundness.


Its survey of the scientific literature that has been cited by experts when providing evidence about why a complainant may be mistaken about a relevant matter in a sexual violence case may well leave the reader with the impression that such scientific experimentation that has been done is rudimentary, flawed, and of negligible real relevance to such cases.


For example, on the topic of eyewitness identification and transference, the authors point out that research on mistakes made involving perpetrators who are strangers to the complainant is misleading or plainly wrong if applied to a case where the defendant is well known to the complainant. Similarly, in relation to studies on the “post-event (mis)information effect”, where in laboratory studies participants are deliberately given misinformation about what happened to see how that impacted on their subsequent accounts. These have a relevance problem: they mostly involve misinformation about minor, unimportant or subtle details, not the major details of a traumatic experience, or they involve observations of an event, not participation in it. They do not, and of course ethically cannot, concern sexual violence committed on the subject of study. Nor is there current scientific literature on the relevance of a sexual violence complainant’s confidence in giving evidence to the accuracy of that evidence, and the accuracy-confidence question is not settled science.


Similarly, false memory implantation studies are generally so artificial as to have minimal relevance to cases of sexual violence. They may be of relatively innocuous events, or carried out on university students, or use degrees of suggestion or social persuasion that have no relevance in the circumstances of a trial. And where there has been an ongoing relationship between the complainant and the defendant, there appears to be no research on how that might have affected complainants’ memories of abuse.


This is not to say that everything is necessarily uncertain. The authors summarise points on which a general consensus been established (with inevitable case by case exceptions) about children’s memory reports and suggestibility, including the danger of suggestive questioning, the loss of peripheral detail when there is delay, and the loss of detail of each episode when abuse has extended over a long period. Importantly, the authors offer guidance on how to evaluate experimental studies on children’s memories of sexual abuse, and stress the need for expert witnesses citing scientific studies to express the uncertainties of such evidence. Experimental research “does not and cannot represent the complexity and severity of sexual abuse.” (p 127)


Briefs of evidence that have been used in the cases surveyed here have tended to cover standard topics, even when not relevant to the case in which they are intended to be used, they tend to speculate on things such as post-event misinformation and transference, citing research but omitting to repeat reservations that the researchers may have expressed, such as the doubtful relevance of experimental studies to sexual abuse cases, or not declaring when their opinion does not have consensus within the literature.


The importance of recognising the body of knowledge available to clinical psychologists is also discussed by the authors. I imagine they would have more experience with genuine victims of sexual abuse and violence, rather than with liars, so they would not be ersatz lie detectors. Just potential myth-dispellers. The authors’ aim is to enhance complainants’ access to justice, and it is to be hoped that the defence, prosecution and judicial participants in court process will benefit from this valuable resource.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Evidence that might be wrong

I found it unsettling to read of scepticism about the prospects of success on an appeal referred to the Court of Appeal after consideration, by a retired judge, of fresh evidence.

As the matter is to be before the Court of Appeal again I say no more about that case. In fact, I know no more about it than anyone who has looked at newspapers or listened to news reports on the radio.

How should a fact-finder, a judge or a jury, deal with the evidence of a witness who might be mistaken?

Many kinds of testimony have an inherent risk of being wrong through mistake.

Should this evidence be assessed by comparison with other evidence on the same point and then be accepted or rejected before all the evidence is considered as a whole? Or, should assessment of the risk of error be suspended until all the evidence has been given and a verdict has to be decided on?

The difference is that suspension of decision on risk of error prevents the fact-finder from forming a theory about the result before all the evidence has been given. A premature theory can bias the assessment of other evidence.

It is unsafe to assess a case as strong before all the evidence in the trial has been given. Nevertheless, we expect a prosecution case to appear strong before a trial, for we do not want people to be prosecuted on weak evidence.

Juries are routinely told by judges that they must suspend judgment until after they have heard all the evidence, the addresses by counsel and the instructions on the law from the judge.

But, and here there is a risk of error, juries are also told that they must, in looking at all the evidence, decide what they accept and what they reject, and then decide whether the evidence they accept is sufficient to prove the prosecutor’s case beyond reasonable doubt.

This suggests a two-step approach to the evidence as a whole. It is wrong to do so. Evidence that may be wrong, may nevertheless be right. If it is wrong, that error can only be shown by reference to all the evidence. The evidence that may be wrong remains relevant to whether on the whole of the evidence there is a reasonable doubt about guilt.

I wouldn’t be as sceptical as the folk mentioned in the news report cited above. Judges are, in my experience of over 40 years of looking at them, fiercely independent-minded people. Any barrister who has struggled to get a judge to follow precedent will agree. Being trained as lawyers, they take pleasure in arguing, and they certainly don’t expect their opinions to be automatically accepted just because they are judges or retired judges. Their overriding concern is to make the law work rationally and justly.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Unable to prevent injustice?

Our little nation (or as we call it in pandemic times, our team of five million) was agog with disbelief today at news of an injustice that the courts could not correct: Fitzgerald v R [2020] NZCA 292.

Our “three strikes” legislation required the court to impose the maximum term of imprisonment available on the defendant. In a Wellington street he had kissed a stranger on the cheek and had assaulted her companion. While the victims no doubt experienced some trauma, they may not have known that Mr Fitzgerald was mentally disabled.

The offences themselves would have not warranted terms of imprisonment. It was only Mr Fitzgerald’s record of more serious sexual offending that set him up for the maximum penalty for what he was charged with. Seven years’ imprisonment.

All four of the judges involved – the sentencing judge and the three Court of Appeal justices – agreed that the result was manifestly unjust. The one Court of Appeal justice who dissented insofar as he found an interpretive solution laid the ground for an application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Amazingly, it took the Court of Appeal 10 months from the hearing to deliver its judgments.

Apart from wrangling over whether a discharge without conviction can be ordered when a sentence is compelled by statute (and one has to wonder why “minimum” and “maximum” were thought to mean the same thing, and in any event they were irrelevant as here the penalty was fixed), the question is naturally raised: could there be some alternative way of avoiding the injustice?

In the circumstances, charges of offensive behaviour were available, or even just two charges of common assault (this was the charge he faced in respect of the second victim). Maximum penalties of $1000 fine, or 1 year in prison respectively.

Was the decision about what charges to bring against Mr Fitzgerald made reasonably? Judicial review of charging decisions is available, and the issue in such proceedings would be whether prosecution for the particular charges that were filed was in the public interest. Plainly, the judges here must have had doubts about that, in view of the inevitable penalty upon conviction. The prosecutor, when deciding what charges to file, should be guided by the seriousness of what the defendant actually did, not the seriousness of the most serious charge that could be filed. The seriousness of what the defendant actually did should be assessed by the likely starting point for sentencing. Here it is clear that a fine or a community based sentence would have been an appropriate measure of the seriousness of the defendant's conduct.

What, though, if it is now too late to review the decision on choice of charges?

The only other “thinking outside the box” remedy that occurs to me at the moment is the stay of proceedings. For this, the Court would have to be satisfied that continuation of the proceedings would undermine public confidence in the integrity of the judicial process. Does judicial paralysis in the face of an unjust result undermine public confidence in the integrity of the judicial process? Finding itself faced with having to impose a manifestly unjust sentence, a court might consider whether to stay the proceedings before that point, even, perhaps, without prejudice to the filing of lesser charges or the addition of lesser charges to the charge list, or the substitution of convictions for lesser offences.

See Osborne v Worksafe New Zealand [2017] NZCA 11 at [36].

Still, the case may not be over, so I say no more.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Should guilty pleas be mitigating factors?

It’s time for some devil’s advocacy.

Should a guilty plea be a factor that mitigates sentence?

Yesterday’s revision of the methodology for calculating the mitigating effect of a guilty plea, Moses v R [2020] NZCA 296, gives such pleas in most cases additional weight.

The Court stated the principal justification for a guilty plea discount (at [22]):

“...benefits to the judicial system and participants in it supply the principal justification for a guilty plea discount.”

What are these benefits?

If the Court means cost saving, that is unconvincing. With backlogs of cases to deal with, the annual costs of the courts and the prisons will be the same. Guilty pleas simply result in the pleaders dropping out of the queue of people awaiting hearings so that those further behind may move forward. There is no chance of the courts running out of work and being able to close down, which would be the only way money could be saved.

And as far as prisons are concerned, a shorter sentence for a guilty pleader will not save money, because that person’s cell will immediately be occupied by someone else. The prisons are not going to run out of detainees, so they will have their normal annual costs. The only way to save money in the prisons is to close them.

So, no money saved, just a bit of queueing courtesy that reduces waiting time for some individuals.

The Court was right not to seek moral grounds to justify guilty plea mitigation. Utilitarianism doesn’t fit: the only added happiness is to be found in those who benefited from queue courtesy, and this may well be offset by the unhappiness caused to victims who see their assailants receiving lighter sentences. Nor does pragmatism, as no cost saving is achieved and there is a risk that some innocent people will be induced to plead guilty rather than face the risk of loss of mitigation in the event that they are wrongly convicted. And deontological justification doesn’t work either: true enough, the courts have a duty to apply the Sentencing Act 2002, which requires plea to be taken into account, but what is the moral basis for that?

I can remember when the idea that an offender should receive a sentence discount for pleading guilty would have been scoffed at. It was sufficiently controversial for me to write about it in an article, “Sentence Discounts for Pleas of Guilty” [1986] New Zealand Law Journal 151. What would have been, and still is, acceptable, is a reduction in sentence for genuine remorse that demonstrates an effort to make amends. The fact that genuine remorse will go together with a guilty plea does not mean that the guilty plea should be a separate ground for mitigation.

I don’t ignore the argument that the saving of stress to witnesses who would otherwise have to give evidence and be cross-examined is a consideration deserving of recognition in mitigation of sentence. But usually that will be a sign of genuine remorse, deserving of recognition on that separate ground.

The more you think about it, the stranger it seems. No one will say so, because defence lawyers cannot object to a mitigating factor, and prosecutors cannot ask the courts to ignore precedents. Parliament can’t change the law, because the economic argument that guilty pleas save costs is so convincing to most people, and a guilty plea is so easily confused with remorse.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Ratio decidendi and stare decisis: how firm are the foundations?

It is disconcerting how difficult some central ideas in law can be when they are used in practice. In theory, ascertaining the legal proposition decided in an authoritative case should be simple enough. It is called the ratio decidendi, and law students encounter the concept from almost day one.

An associated central idea in law also has a Latin name: stare decisis. This is the idea that decisions about what the law is should be respected and applied to the extent that they are relevant in subsequent cases. The law needs to be predictable in its application, not arbitrary. This is a requirement of what is often called the rule of law. Our society is orderly to the extent that we accept the rule of law.

When a case gets to the final appeal court, it must be open to contrasting results. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have got that far. If the ratio of the final court’s decision is easy to identify, it will be difficult for subsequent courts dealing with the same issue to apply the earlier decision differently. But controversy over the ratio makes the law uncertain and open to change.

Ramos v Louisiana, discussed here on April 25, 2020, is a good example of a case where the ratio of an earlier decision was open to different interpretations. That case is particularly interesting for Kavanaugh J’s discussion of when a precedent may be overturned.

Overturning a precedent is clearly a serious step to take, because it challenges the rule of law. It is far more preferable for the earlier ratio to be reinterpreted, with reasons explaining how it came to be misunderstood. In June Medical Services LLC v Russo USSC No 18-1323 (June 29, 2020) Roberts CJ, the swing vote, stressed the importance of following precedent.

One source of difficulty in ascertaining the ratio of multi-judgment cases is where concurring judges give reasons for taking a slightly different view of the law from the view taken in a joint judgment, and the joint judgment does not address those alternative reasons. This happened in Nguyen v The Queen [2020] HCA 23 (30 June 2020). Here, the judgments of Nettle J, and in particular of Edelman J, appear entirely persuasive, but the joint judgment, with which the concurring judges in other respects agreed, does not explain why those concurrences are faulty. It’s almost as if the Court was deliberately setting up an interesting exercise for law students.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Discrimination on grounds of sex: Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia

It was most interesting, even amusing, to read the new definition of “sex” offered by the Supreme Court of the United States by a majority of 6-3 in Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia No 17-1618, June 15, 2020.

The context was discrimination, and the issue was whether an employer who fires an employee because they were homosexual, or, in another jointly heard appeal, transgender, thereby discriminates against that person because of their sex.

Prohibitions against discrimination because of sex have not always included homosexuality. Sometimes homosexuality is mentioned as a separate instance of prohibited discrimination.

For example, initially the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 did not specify sexual orientation as being within the prohibited discriminations in s 19, although it did specify sex as being included within those prohibitions. But later, s 19 was amended with the coming into force of the Human Rights Act 1993, and sexual orientation became a specific matter over which discrimination was, and is, prohibited: s 21(1)(m), in addition to sex s 21(1)(a).

There would be no need to specifically add sexual orientation if it was obviously within the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of a person’s sex.

The majority’s paradigm works like this: discrimination on grounds of sex includes dismissal of an employee because of behaviour that would not lead to the dismissal of an employee of the opposite biological gender.

Enough of what the majority said. What are the implications?

In this paradigm, “behaviour” can include many things, not just having sex (or displaying an interest in having sex) with a person of the same biological gender. Various things leading up to full cross-dressing could qualify: fingernail painting, makeup wearing, surgical modification of body shape, wig wearing, suggestive clothing, and so on. Opposite-gender mannerisms and speech characteristics would also fit the paradigm.

Some attention was given to whether an employer’s announced general policy (“We do not hire gays, lesbians, or transgender individuals”) was discriminatory against sex. Alito J, dissenting, agreed with a concession in argument that this would not be sex discrimination. But obviously, if such a person was employed and their infraction of the policy later discovered, then firing that person for that reason would fit the majority’s paradigm of sex discrimination.

Alito J also was concerned with implications under other legislation, and in contexts such as bathrooms and locker rooms. Put plainly the point was, would a heterosexual person be comfortable with a transgender person – entitled under the majority’s opinion to share a locker room - looking at their naked body? Women’s sports were also an area of difficulty, if men who identify as women are not to be given an unfair advantage in that arena.

And, continued Alito J, are segregated accommodations, such as student living facilities still permitted? Similarly, do the segregating practices of some religions infringe the new understanding of sex discrimination?

Various other examples of potential problems were mentioned, including the effect on freedom of speech of the now-apparent obligation to use gender pronouns in a non-discriminatory way.

Lots of fun for lawyers is on the horizon.

The split of the Court is also of some interest. The Bush Junior nominees split (Roberts CJ in the majority, Alito J dissenting), as did the Trump nominees (Gorsuch J leading the majority, Kavanaugh J dissenting) the Clintons (Ginsburgh and Breyer JJ) were in the majority, as were the Obamas (Sotomayor and Kagan JJ), and the Bush Senior nominee (Thomas J) joined the dissent of Alito J.

Monday, May 04, 2020

COVID-19 lockdown: how far may you stray?

We are currently in level 3 lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How far may we travel from our home or residence to get some exercise?

The law must not be so vague as to be meaningless. This is not to say that all vagueness is meaningless. Courts are familiar with getting to grips with concepts such as, what is “reasonable” force in self-defence, what is “disorderly” behaviour, what is “indecent” material, etc.

The lockdown conditions are prescribed in the Health Act (COVID-19 Alert Level 3) Order 2020.

Of interest here is clause 7(e)(i):

“A person is permitted to do any of the following as essential personal movement: ... leave their home or place of residence for the purpose of exercise or other recreation if—
... it is done in an outdoor place appropriate for that kind of exercise or recreation that is readily accessible (including by using their vehicle) from their home or place of residence (and, in any case, is within the same or an adjacent region); ...”

The expression “readily accessible” is not defined in the Order, but “region” is.

At this point there is some complexity, for “region” means:

“the area of the Civil Defence Emergency Management Group (under the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002) of which the relevant territorial authority is a member”.

The central concept here is a civil defence emergency management group (CDEM group). There are 16 such groups in New Zealand. Territorial authorities are listed in Part 2 of Schedule 2 to the Local Government Act 2002.

So, if you are in Auckland, you are in the territorial authority of the Auckland Council, and this is a member of the CDEM Group called the Auckland CDEM Group, indicated on the map.

Sticking with the Auckland example, “adjacent” regions are the Northland CDEM Group, and the Waikato CDEM Group. In contrast, the Bay of Plenty CDEM Group is not adjacent to the Auckland CDEM Group.

This is, it turns out, quite straightforward. But it leaves us asking, are all locations within the Auckland CDEM Group “readily accessible” to a person who resides in the Auckland CDEM Group (or to a person who resides in the Northland CDEM Group or in the Waikato CDEM Group)?

Why does the Order mention these groups at all, if the more constrictive condition on movement is the “readily accessible” one? Or, does “readily accessible” mean something like by one mode of transport (hence the reference to vehicle). Does the Order prohibit movement by car followed by completion of the journey on horseback? I jest, of course. But does it prohibit travel by car then by bicycle?

But Don, you may say, the government has put guidance on this on its COVID-19 website. It says, under FAQs for recreation:

“How far can I drive to do a recreation activity?

“You should drive as short a distance as you can, and still do the activity. You must stay local.

“Your nearest recreational area could mean travelling to a neighbouring region if you live on a regional boundary, as long as this is still local and a close distance to your home. Travel to your nearest park or beach, not your favourite one.”

It plainly says here that the requirement is “stay local”.  This is further explained under the heading Exercise at Alert Level 3:

“Where you can exercise

“Stick to your local area. For example, go to your nearest beach or park, not your favourite one. Staying overnight at a bach or holiday home is not permitted.

“You should drive as short a distance as you can and still do the activity.

“If you live on a regional boundary, this might mean travelling to a neighbouring region. This is fine as long as it’s still local and a close distance from your home.”

Quite understandable. Why isn’t this in the Order? Being advice from the executive branch it is not law, unless it comes within the powers of delegation of the official who issued the Order (the Director General of Health). But under the Health Act 1956 the Director General has no power of delegation in this respect (note the repeal of s 5B; current delegation powers exist only under s 112K in respect of the National Cervical Screening Programme).

To what extent, as a matter of law, are the executive indications about staying local able to be used to interpret the Order? The Interpretation Act 1999, ss 5 and 34 are relevant here. Section 34, specifically relevant to orders of this sort, refers us to the Act under which the order was made, but the Health Act does not define “readily accessible”. We are left wondering whether “readily accessible” really corresponds to only “staying local”.

Lord Sumption has stressed the importance of distinguishing law from executive directive, lest freedoms be eroded by fiat. The courts might be cautious about applying executive directives instead of legislation (in this case, subordinate legislation in the form of the Director General of Health’s Order). Everyone needs the law to be clear. Instead of using the generality “readily accessible” – which courts can interpret but of course after the event of an alleged infraction – the order should use agreed units of measurement: you may walk for X km, you may drive for Y km and then walk for X km.

But where is the legislative authority for including restrictions on movement in an Order? This Order was made purportedly, as stated in the first sentence of the Order, pursuant to s 70(1)(f) and (m) of the Health Act 1956. Prohibition of congregating is allowed, but there is no reference to prohibiting movement.

Permitting people to move outside their residences for the purpose of exercise is so obviously desirable that, if on strict interpretation there is an absence of statutory power to make orders regulating people’s movements, some justification needs to be found. Enforcement requires lawful authority. Constitutional lawyers will point to a shift in what Kelsen called the Grundnorm, according to which near-universal public acceptance of rules is what gives them de jure status. Radical indeed, to the point of being revolutionary (and indeed this idea is used to explain successful revolutions). However, such an esoteric constitutional and jurisprudential concept, like arguments that endeavour to bridge the gaps that sometimes occur between law and common sense (or, if I might be permitted to add another language, la réalité), is unlikely to be well received by judges.

Obviously the power to regulate movement needs a source in legislation.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Stare decisis: contrasting judicial opinions in Ramos v Louisiana

In my post of 16 April I suggested that ascertaining the ratio of a multi-judge case can be entertaining. Who could have guessed how great the entertainment is when a bench of nine divides over the ratio of a case decided by the same Court?

This was the amusing part of Ramos v Louisiana USSC No 18-5924, April 20, 2020. The case holds - you could call this its ratio - that the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial requires that in the States (as with the federal courts and the courts of the territories) juries must be unanimous in their verdicts.

Of more general interest is the Court’s treatment of its 1972 decision Apodaca v Oregon, 406 U.S. 404. This decided that majority verdicts in State courts are permitted by the Sixth Amendment. On this the Court split 5-4, the 4-4 stalemate being broken by the fifth judge, Powell J. His reasoning was idiosyncratic, to say the least. He said that the Sixth Amendment means one thing for the federal courts and the courts of the territories, and another for the state courts.

Suppose, as occurred here, the reasoning of the other judges was on two competing lines, each cancelling the other out. When this sort of division occurs, does the idiosyncratic reasoning bind subsequent Courts? It would if it were ratio. If the idiosyncratic reasoning, being ratio, has no basis in precedent, can subsequent courts simply say it was wrong even if it has been applied for nearly 50 years? Or does the idiosyncratic opinion of one judge bind subsequent benches of nine judges?

Although following precedent, stare decisis, is extremely important for the stability of law (see the opinion of Kavanaugh J, emphasising that in respect of constitutional precedents, a decision to overrule should consider whether they are egregiously wrong, whether they have they caused social harm, and whether overturning would cause undue social disruption), human ingenuity is such that a later court can always find a way to decline to follow a previous decision. The Court did this in Ramos. The dissenters were Alito J, joined by Roberts CJ and Kagan J. They applied Apodaca and would have held that majority verdicts are permissible in state courts. Three of the majority judges, Gorsuch J, joined by Ginsburg and Breyer JJ would have preferred to have given Apodaca no precedent value. But, joined by Sotomayor J, and by Kavanaugh J, they held that Apodaca was a precedent but that it was wrongly decided. Thomas J concurred in the result, that unanimous verdicts are required in state courts, but for different reasons: he drew upon the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment rather than its Due Process Clause, and on that basis he distinguished Apodaca. The dissenters, while not necessarily thinking Apodaca was correctly decided, regarded it as a precedent that should be followed, Alito J joined by Roberts CJ said that it should be followed because of the reliance that had been placed on it, while all three dissenters agreed that its ratio is that when a defendant is convicted in a state court and at least 10 of the 12 jurors vote to convict, and the defendant argues that the conviction violates the Constitution because the vote was not unanimous, the challenge fails. This narrow view of the ratio enabled these judges to disregard Powell J’s idiosyncratic reasoning while applying his conclusion.

The majority decision brought Louisiana (and Oregon) into line with the other States. In any event, Louisiana has enacted a requirement for unanimous verdicts in trials for crimes committed on or after 1 January 2019 (see Kavanaugh J), so the decision can’t have been a great surprise for anyone.

The unanimity requirement cuts both ways, although this is seldom pointed out. A defendant can’t have an acquittal unless all jurors agree on that verdict. When a jury can’t reach a verdict a retrial is usually ordered. So yes, unanimity is a safeguard against a wrongful conviction, but it is also an obstacle to an acquittal.

For those who are interested in whether the Supreme Court is going to overturn Roe v WadeRamos v Louisiana provides some insight into judicial attitudes to precedent.

Ramos is also worth looking at for its various references to the history of jury trials.

And here is an insight into the judicial process, by Edward Lazarus in his examination of the judicial culture of the United States Supreme Court, Closed Chambers – The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court (1998), pp248-249:

“The most we can expect and what we must demand from the Court as it expounds the law is an integrity born of consistency and sincerity. Legitimate constitutional arguments are not limitless; they may take several forms familiar to law. They may be based on history, on precedent, on the text, on inferences from the way our government is structured, on appeals to ethics, or on prudential considerations about the consequences of a decision. Often, these modes of argument are used in combination, melded into a convincing whole. And none is perfect for every circumstance. Deciding which modes of argument best suit the facts and circumstances of a given case is both an inevitable moral choice and the essence of judging.”

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Police retention and use of unlawfully obtained information: Smethurst v Commissioner of Police [2020] HCA 14

If the police wrongfully seize a cell phone and make their own copy of the information stored on it, can the owner of that information require the police to destroy their copy and not make it available to a prosecuting authority?

This had to be decided in Smethurst v Commissioner of Police [2020] HCA 14, where the cause of action was in equity: an application for a mandatory injunction, which would order the police to cease their retention of data they had copied to their own storage device. That remedy is, where it is available, discretionary. It was sought in order to prevent the police from continuing to benefit from the consequences of their trespass by unlawful searches.

These were not criminal proceedings, and what the data disclosed was unknown. However, the plaintiffs had conceded that there might be prejudice to them with respect to possible criminal proceedings [47]. In broad and vague terms, the plaintiffs – a journalist and a newspaper publisher – might (and it’s a big “might”) have breached national security in obtaining information used as the basis for publications warning people about extensions to governmental powers of surveillance.

A full bench of seven judges grappled with the issues.

The majority comprised a joint judgment by Kiefel CJ, Bell and Keane JJ, and a concurrence in the result by Nettle J who gave slightly different reasons.

The joint judgment reasoned that there was no juridical basis for an injunction here, but even if there was, discretionary considerations would deny a grant because as criminal conduct was suspected there was a public interest in revealing criminality [99]. Just as in criminal cases improperly obtained evidence may be admissible, here the impropriety was not in itself sufficient to foreclose use of the evidence [100], [103]. This prospect of disclosure of criminal conduct was sufficient to decline the discretionary relief that was sought [104]. Injunctions protect legal rights, and here the plaintiffs had no right to protection from being investigated in relation to an offence [85]. This was not a case where the Court had to decide whether there is a common law tort of breach of privacy, as the plaintiffs did not seek to have that determined [90]. 

Nettle J, whose concurrence determined the outcome, agreed that potential disclosure of criminality weighed against granting the injunction [160]. He emphasised that the error by the police was honest, which meant that retention of the information was not so obliquitous so as to be inequitable [158] (a point disagreed with by Edelman J at [262]). Nettle J also considered that weighing against the injunction was an undertaking by the Commissioner of Police to only use the information as if it had been lawfully seized, which meant that if no offending was disclosed the items would all be returned without prejudice to the plaintiff [161] (also disagreed with by Edelman J at [269]). In contrast to the plurality, Nettle J thought it was not relevant to draw upon the public policy concerns surrounding discretionary exclusion of improperly obtained evidence in criminal proceedings, as here there was insufficient information before the Court about criminality [162].

Dissenting judgments were delivered by Gageler, Gordon and Edelman JJ.

Gageler J found the juridical basis for relief here in the tort of trespass [119], drawing upon the need to adapt the common law [120], [124], [126]. He discussed the guiding principles governing the exercise of the discretion concerning equitable relief [134], and emphasised that an injunction need not prevent ongoing investigation of criminality [139].

Gordon J agreed that terms could be devised [188], as did Edelman J [271]. Gordon J put the basis for relief as the excess of power [185], saying that an injunction would merely require the police to obey the law [190]. The police could still seek further search warrants [188], and the discretionary considerations favoured the issuing of an injunction [192]-[197].

Edelman J – in an impressive survey of the equitable remedy of injunction - stressed the inadequacy of the alternative common law remedy of damages [252] (a point recognised by all judges), although he acknowledged the strength of Nettle J’s reasoning at [185]-[162] which suggested that damages could be an adequate remedy. But here, Edelman J reasoned that damages would not be adequate because the statutory protections surrounding the use of lawfully seized material did not apply to unlawfully seized material, and damages would not remedy this absence [263]-[264]. It was also important, in determining the discretion, to consider the police perspective [266]. There was a paucity of facts as to criminality here [267], and the police undertaking to act as if the search warrants had been lawful did not truly reverse the consequence of their unlawful action [269]. An injunction could be drawn in terms that made it subject to the execution of a lawful search warrant [271]. This would not be against the public interest [277]-[279].

So, all the plaintiffs in this case were left with was (translating the equitable remedy of certiorari, and putting it in general terms) a finding that a warrant to search the journalist’s home was invalid. That would, if there were ever to be criminal proceedings in which information retained by the police in this case was to become the subject of discretionary exclusion, be one of the factors for consideration on that admissibility issue.

The exercise of determining the ratio decidendi of this aspect of the case (there are other aspects which will be of great interest to Australian lawyers, including the requirements for a valid search warrant, and some constitutional issues concerning injunctive relief) is one that could entertain students for several minutes. I shouldn’t offer spoilers, other than to say that a critical fact is that the police here acted in good faith in carrying out the search and seizure and copying of the electronic information. Had there been bad faith, Nettle J may have favoured issuing an injunction [158] and so joined in the result favoured by Gageler, Gordon and Edelman JJ to form a different majority. It seems that Kiefel CJ, Bell and Keane JJ would still have refused an injunction because the trespass was complete and the plaintiffs could point to no legal right for the Court to protect [68], [76], [77], [85].

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Unreasonable verdict and reasonable doubt

In Pell v The Queen [2020] HCA 12 (7 April 2020) the High Court made some important distinctions between fact-finders and appellate courts considering conviction appeals. At [37]:

“... Just as the performance by a court of criminal appeal of its functions does not involve the substitution of trial by an appeal court for trial by a jury, so, generally speaking, the appeal court should not seek to duplicate the function of the jury in its assessment of the credibility of the witnesses where that assessment is dependent upon the evaluation of the witnesses in the witness-box. The jury performs its function on the basis that its decisions are made unanimously, and after the benefit of sharing the jurors' subjective assessments of the witnesses. Judges of courts of criminal appeal do not perform the same function in the same way as the jury, or with the same advantages that the jury brings to the discharge of its function.”

And, when assessing the reasonableness of a verdict of guilty, [39]:

The function of the court of criminal appeal in determining a ground that contends that the verdict of the jury is unreasonable or cannot be supported having regard to the evidence, in a case such as the present, proceeds upon the assumption that the evidence of the complainant was assessed by the jury to be credible and reliable. The court examines the record to see whether, notwithstanding that assessment – either by reason of inconsistencies, discrepancies, or other inadequacy; or in light of other evidence – the court is satisfied that the jury, acting rationally, ought nonetheless to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to proof of guilt.” (footnote omitted)
This reflects the need for a fact-finder to keep an open mind until all the evidence has been given, and after the addresses of counsel for each side and the judge’s summing up and instructions on the law have been delivered. It would be wrong, for example, for a juror to think, after hearing the evidence of a prosecution witness, that that evidence was convincing and sufficient on its own to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. So, in referring at [39] to the appellate court’s proceeding on the basis that the jury found the evidence of the complainant to be credible and reliable, the High Court was not suggesting that the jury could properly have done that peremptorily in isolation. Really, the appellate court asks, should the jury have recognised that there was a reasonable doubt about guilt?
The appellate court does not ordinarily need to hear or view a recording of the evidence at trial (at [36]): 

“...There may be cases where there is something particular in the video-recording that is apt to affect an appellate court's assessment of the evidence, which can only be discerned visually or by sound. In such cases, there will be a real forensic purpose to the appellate court's examination of the video-recording. But such cases will be exceptional ....”

So, what about the facts? I know it is said that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, but that is not a rule of law. The strange thing about this case is that the alleged criminal behaviour, being unusual and surely of a compulsive nature, was accompanied by so few complaints. If it had happened as alleged, you would expect there to be a multitude of similar complaints covering criminality over many years. Frequent association with young choristers would, one might suppose, make repetition more likely. True enough, juries are told to consider only the evidence that has been given, but they are also told to use their common sense and experience when assessing it. Consistently with this, a defendant’s good character is admissible as evidence to challenge the credibility of an allegation. In this case the High Court held that the jury should have had a reasonable doubt about guilt, but we may well think that on a common sense view the probability of innocence is virtually certain.

Update: For a full critique of the intermediate appellate court decision in Pell, see Dennis J Baker, "Accusation as Proof: Uncorroborated Historic Sexual Abuse Allegations" (2020) 84(1) Journal of Criminal Law 1.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Money laundering, structuring, implications of Lordianto v The Queen [2019] HCA 39

Money laundering can be committed recklessly. When you add that fact to what you have learnt from Lordianto v The Queen [2019] HCA 39 (13 November 2019), the implications are startling.

Suppose you are expecting a large deposit in your bank account, say $100,000. As far as you can see, there is no reason why that would not appear in your bank account as a single transaction.

Surprisingly, you find that there has been a series of deposits, each under $10,000, to make up the expected $100,000. For example, 11 deposits: 10 of $9,990 and one of $100.

Knowing what you do know, after reading Lordianto and learning about cuckoo smurfing, you must be alert to the risk that what has gone on is called structuring, and it is an offence against the anti-money laundering legislation.

Structuring is arranging transactions to avoid detection by agencies who have due diligence obligations under that legislation. In New Zealand, it is an offence against the Anti-money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism Act 2009s 101.

This is not your offence, but the question is whether you know that there is a risk that structuring has been committed, and whether objectively it is unreasonable for you to take that risk. This recklessness comes into play because it is a way that money laundering can occur. And you are presumed to know the law, for example the prescribed threshold for the bank having to report the relevant transaction, as set out in the AML/CFT (Definitions) Regulations 2011.

Money laundering is an offence defined in s 243 of the Crimes Act 1961. If you “deal with” the deposits, by transferring them (or strictly in legal terms, exercising your rights pursuant to the chose in action referable to the credit in your account) to anyone, and that dealing involves concealment (which it necessarily does, because concealment is defined to include converting it from one form to another), with the necessary state of mind, the offence of money laundering is committed.

Recklessness as to whether the deposits are proceeds of the offence of structuring is the catch that could easily criminalise a person who in all other respects expects to be the recipient of lawful funds.

Furthermore, the structured funds could be restrained under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009, preventing you from accessing them.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Differing desirability: admission of improperly obtained evidence in New South Wales

Illegal video surveillance of animal cruelty, producing a series of recordings, followed by application for a search warrant, and then the obtaining of admissions by a trick, led to challenges to the admissibility of evidence in Kadir v The Queen [2020] HCA 1 (5 February 2020).

The three groups of challenged evidence were the video recordings, the information obtained in the search, and the admissions made to a civilian informant.

At first instance, all the challenged evidence was held inadmissible, because it flowed from the illegal surveillance, and the weighing exercise required by the legislation led to that result.

On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeal (NSW) held that all the evidence was admissible.

The High Court of Australia held that the video surveillance evidence was inadmissible, but the other evidence (search, admissions) was admissible.

This was not held to be a suitable occasion for clarifying the law on how appeals under this legislation should be approached (at [8]). For a review of issues that need attention, see Chris Edmonds, “Appeals from Discretions, Satisfactions, and Value Judgments: Reviewing the House Rules” (2017) 41(2) Melbourne University Law Review 647.

Decision criterion

The statutory decision process here as set out in s 138 of the Evidence Act 1995 (NSW) (reproduced at [10]) requires that the evidence to which it applies “is not to be admitted unless the desirability of admitting the evidence outweighs the undesirability of admitting evidence that has been obtained in the way in which the evidence was obtained.”

That looks quite simple. It lacks the encumbrance of the New Zealand requirement (s 30 of the Evidence Act 2006): (2)(b) the judge shall “... determine whether or not the exclusion of the evidence is proportionate to the impropriety by means of a balancing process that gives appropriate weight to the impropriety and takes proper account of the need for an effective and credible system of justice.”

You don’t have to be Wittgenstein to know that the meaning of “the need for an effective and credible system of justice” can only be ascertained from the way it is applied in cases. It is what we might nowadays call a meta-level explanation of the shape of the boundary between cases where improperly obtained evidence is admissible, and those where it is inadmissible. Is it a useful part of the statutory criteria, or is the NSW provision an adequate alternative?

The NSW provision has been fleshed out by case law. The words desirability and undesirability refer to (at [13]) the public interest in all relevant evidence being before the fact-finding tribunal, and the public interest in not giving curial approval, or encouragement, to illegally or improperly obtaining evidence generally.

No doubt, a scholar of Australian evidence law could sort out admissibility decisions under provisions like s 138 into those resulting in admission, and those resulting in exclusion, of improperly obtained evidence in criminal cases, and could claim that the shape of the boundary between those decisions reflects some abstraction such as the need for an effective and credible system of justice. The only useful point in doing that would be to provide a framework for predicting the correct result of undecided cases, or to identify cases that have been decided wrongly. Hardly a useless exercise.

To what extent is the decision in Kadir determined by precedents illustrating the seriousness of the illegality, the seriousness of the alleged offending, and the relative weighs of the matters that are to be taken into account pursuant to s 138(3)? Without reference to other cases the appeal outcomes could seem to be just differences in opinion, not really legal determinations.


The party seeking to adduce the evidence must satisfy the judge that the desirability of admitting the evidence outweighs the undesirability of admitting it: s 138(1). This is clearer as to onus than is the New Zealand provision, which has caused some confusion: see my note on Kearns here.

It’s not an all-or-none question

Kadir illustrates the need to address each category of challenged evidence in turn, rather than lump them all together as happened at first instance. This is because the weighing factors differ with context (at [42]).

The search warrant was obtained in reliance on the improper surveillance, but the agency seeking the warrant (the RSPCA) was unaware of the illegality (at [38], [41], [47]-[48]). That was a significant difference from the position of the informant who carried out the surveillance, who had trespassed to place the camera.

The trick involved in obtaining the admissions did not depend on the illegal surveillance (although the admissions were obtained by the person who had carried out the surveillance), and it was no more objectionable than tricks routinely used to collect evidence ([50]-[51]).

Relevant to the admissibility of the search and the admissions evidence was the absence of the element of criminality that had been involved in the obtaining of the surveillance evidence.

Furthermore, and this might cause the brow to wrinkle (but it’s just a consequence of the separate consideration of the categories of evidence), exclusion of the surveillance evidence increased the importance of the remaining evidence for the prosecution case. The public interest in excluding the surveillance evidence resulted in an enhanced public interest in admitting the other evidence (at [42], [47]).

The absence of lawful means of getting the evidence

The significance of the impracticability of any alternative lawful means of getting the evidence that was obtained by unlawful surveillance was a matter over which the courts differed in this case. At first instance the parties had apparently assumed that this factor weighed in favour of admitting the evidence, and the judge had found it difficult to gauge the weight to give this (at [3]-[4]). The Court of Criminal Appeal accepted that this factor weighed in favour of admitting the first of the series of video recordings in view of the likely inefficacy of an anonymous complaint (at [36]). The High Court’s determination is at [20], emphasising at [37] that here the difficulty of getting the evidence lawfully weighed against admitting the surveillance evidence.

The significance of the impracticability of alternative lawful means of obtaining the evidence can vary with circumstances, but it may weigh in favour of admitting the evidence if there is urgency. It is likely to weigh against admission if there was deliberate or reckless illegality. It is likely to be neutral if the impropriety was neither deliberate nor reckless ([20]). [1]

Did the illegality link to the obtaining of the evidence?

The admissions were made to the person who conducted the illegal surveillance. Although the surveillance was a step leading to the conversations, that was all: [51], endorsing the CCA decision on this point. No information obtained illegally was used by the informer in her conversation eliciting the admissions. Although there was a “bare connection”, admission of the evidence was unlikely to convey curial approval or encouragement of the contravention.

This gets around the “but for” objection: no conversation would have occurred but for the illegal surveillance. The judge at first instance had applied “but for” reasoning (at [34]-[35]).

The use of unlawfully obtained information in the application for the search warrant

Here the RSPCA was unaware of the illegality and it put forward the unlawfully obtained information in good faith in its application for the search warrant (at [41]). What if it had known? Would it have been sufficient to disclose the illegality to the official considering the application? What could that official be expected to do in the face of such disclosure? In any event, how should a court address the validity of a search warrant issued on improperly obtained information? For the New Zealand position, see R v Alsford [2017] NZSC 42, holding by a majority that improperly obtained evidence (here referring to evidence that a court has ruled inadmissible, but applicable pari passu) may be advanced in support of an application for a warrant if it is identified as such, and its impropriety will be a balancing factor in considering the admissibility of evidence obtained by the warrant (Alsford at [100]).

[1] In New Zealand we are less inclined to allow the absence of, or failure to use, available lawful means of obtaining the evidence to be used as a factor weighing in favour of admission of the evidence. See the Law Commissions Second Review of the Evidence Act 2006 (February, 2019) at [7.36]-[7.40]. It is difficult to see, in principle, how urgency - one of the excuses for failure to use known lawful alternatives - can do anything other than reduce the weight to be given to impropriety. An exception to our disinclination to admit evidence obtained unlawfully, when there was a known lawful alternative means of getting it, is Robinson v R [2017] NZCA 347 at [26], where the fact that a search warrant could have been obtained (but wasn't) weighed heavily in favour of admission of the evidence obtained in the search of a storage unit. This decision, of a Divisional bench (one permanent Court of Appeal Judge, sitting with two High Court Judges), does not refer to the leading case, R v Williams [2007] NZCA 52, [2007] 3 NZLR 207 at [127] which describes deliberate decisions not to employ lawful techniques of investigation as aggravating impropriety. Williams is a decision of a bench of permanent members of the Court (two of whom became members of the Supreme Court). The Robinson bench breached, unwittingly, the law as stated in Williams. The Law Commission did not refer to Robinson in its Second Review. Again, a "Charlie Foxtrot" occurred in Moore v R [2017] NZCA 577 at [19], where failure to obtain a warrant to search a vehicle which had been secured at a police station was treated as raising inevitability of discovery "if a warrant had been obtained". This time the bench consisted of permanent members, so there isn't even a status excuse for the Court's failure to follow the law. Also not cited by the Law Commission. Even so, had the correct reasoning been used in Robinson and Moore, the results of the appeals would have been the same, so these cases are examples of right result, wrong reasoning.