Friday, March 11, 2005

Questions about negligence

The question whether counsel can be liable for negligence arising from conduct of criminal proceedings has deliberately, and unanimously, been left undecided in Lai v Chamberlains 8/3/05, CA15/03. Anderson P noted, para 39, the view of the House of Lords that, were such an action to be allowed, it would first require a successful appeal against conviction. The plurality in Lai at para 124 left aside the matter of liability for negligence arising from criminal proceedings, as did Hammond J, in a judgment expressing the majority view, at para 191.

Not every error by counsel at a criminal trial gives rise to a miscarriage of justice. For example, decisions may be made for tactical reasons to avoid taking every possible objection to the admissibility of evidence. This was recognised by the High Court of Australia in Ali v R [2005] HCA 8 (8 March 2005), per Gleeson CJ at para 9, Hayne J at 23, and Callinan and Heydon JJ at 98 and 99. On the other hand, while it may be difficult to point to a single critical error by counsel, an accumulation of circumstances may result in there being a miscarriage of justice, as occurred in R v Sharma (2003) 20 CRNZ 491 (CA). Would conduct of the kind that occurred in Sharma be sufficient to sustain an action for negligence?

As Hammond J said in Lai, at 181, the law should support a standard of excellence, although this was offered as a reason for applying negligence liability, not as a reason for holding counsel liable for anything less than excellence. In Sharma, such grounds for concern as there were, under this head, may have arisen from failure of senior defence counsel’s self-control due to the stress of the trial. Included in the causes of that stress may have been a personality conflict with the client during the trial. If there was negligence by counsel, was there contributory negligence by the client? Furthermore, in Sharma the overturning of the convictions was partly caused by judicial error in receiving verdicts before questions from the jury had been answered (or without establishing that the jury no longer required such answers). To what extent should that error reduce any liability for negligence that might otherwise have attached to counsel?

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