Monday, February 14, 2005

"Applying" the law

A judge may not in any circumstances direct a jury to find an accused person guilty: R v Wang [2005] UKHL 9 (10 February 2005).

This is so even where the defence had the burden of raising a defence and had failed to discharge that burden, and also where the facts are agreed at trial and there is nothing calling for adjudication and there is no basis upon which the accused can properly avoid conviction on the uncontested facts. The Crown’s argument that in these circumstances a directed guilty verdict would be acceptable (para 2) was rejected in the considered opinion of the Appellate Committee in Wang.

This does not affect certain recognised areas: the power of a judge to direct an acquittal; the power of a judge to withdraw a defence from the jury’s consideration if there is no evidence whatever to support it; and the absence of any requirement for the judge to direct the jury on issues not raised by the defence. See Wang, para 3.

At root is the fundamental distinction between the functions of the judge and the jury. In particular, it is the jury that applies the law to the facts. The judge does not apply the law to the facts. This process of "applying" is critical. It amounts to a constitutional check on the powers of the executive. The Committee cited remarks by (the then) Sir Patrick Devlin, writing in 1956, who said (Hamlyn Lectures, "Trial by Jury", pp 160, 162), that the leaving of the last word to the jury was

"an insurance that the criminal law will conform to the ordinary man's idea of what is fair and just. If it does not, the jury will not be a party to its enforcement …. The executive knows that in dealing with the liberty of the subject it must not do anything which would seriously disturb the conscience of the average member of Parliament or of the average juryman. I know of no other real checks that exist today upon the power of the executive."

Acknowledgement of this fundamental principle will require some revision of the standard way of directing juries. The judge usually tells the jury that if they find certain facts proved beyond reasonable doubt, then their verdict must be guilty. That is contrary to Wang. What the jury have to be told is that their task is to apply the law, the ingredients of the offence as set out by the judge, to the facts that they find proved beyond reasonable doubt in deciding whether they find the accused guilty. Further elaboration is not necessary, and in particular it would be wrong to tell the jury that they are free to find the accused not guilty even if they are sure the prosecution has proved its case.

Even where the result of applying the law to the facts would appear to be a foregone conclusion, there may nevertheless be "nuances (to adopt the language of Lord Keith in DPP v Stonehouse [1978] AC 55) not recognised by the judicial mind." (Wang, para 17.)

This calls to mind the problem of when an appellate court may properly hold that, notwithstanding some error of law at trial, there was no miscarriage of justice because the accused was not deprived of a real chance of acquittal. A particularly intriguing example is R v Howse [2003] 3 NZLR 767 (CA). Another is R v Bain [2004] 1 NZLR 638 (CA). Both these cases are subject to Privy Council consideration.

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