Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Evidence Bill (4)

The need to avoid a substantial miscarriage of justice is the pervasive criterion for the correctness of decisions, considered individually and collectively, made by the trial judge. It is undoubtedly true, as Lord Rodger recently observed in relation to fairness, that the appellate court may have the advantage of a clearer perspective on whether a substantial miscarriage of justice has occurred: Holland v HM Advocate (Devolution) [2005] UKPC D1 (11 May 2005), para 41. It is therefore a natural, and widespread practice throughout the common law jurisdictions, for appellate courts to have to consider whether any miscarriage of justice that had occurred was indeed substantial. If it was not, appeals will be dismissed. Trial judges, absorbed in their task of trying to make the law work, will naturally bear in mind this ultimate criterion.

Substantial miscarriages of justice are currently seen as being of two types. The first arises where error at trial deprives the accused of a reasonable chance of an acquittal. This does not necessarily mean that the trial was unfair, as it includes situations of freshly obtained evidence which do not impugn the fairness of the trial, only the correctness of its result. Other examples of loss of a reasonable chance of acquittal may involve trial unfairness. The second type of substantial miscarriage of justice does invlove trial fairness. It includes cases where the course taken resulted in bias, actual or perceived, and cases where the trial was not according to law. In this second type of substantial miscarriage of justice, loss of a reasonable chance of acquittal is irrelevant, as even a person who is patently guilty is entitled to trial according to law: Randall v R [2002] UKPC 19 (16 April 2002); [2002] 1 WLR 2237 (PC), at 2251 para 28.

Thus the two elements, loss of a reasonable chance of acquittal, and loss of the right to a trial that is fair to the accused, are of primary importance. This should be reflected in the overarching provisions of evidence law.

In its application to criminal proceedings, the Evidence Bill falls short of recognising the primacy of these elements. Clause 6 states:

6 Purpose
The purpose of this Act is to help secure the just determination of proceedings by---
(a) providing for facts to be established by the application of logical rules; and
(b) promoting fairness to parties and witnesses; and
(c) protecting rights of confidentiality and other important public interests; and
(d) avoiding unjustifiable expense and delay.

The expression "fairness to parties and witnesses" does not recognise the ranking of the importance of fairness to the accused, to the prosecution, and to witnesses.

[Update: the Evidence Bill was enacted, in revised form, as the Evidence Act 2006. Its purposes have been expanded by inserting in s 6 the following purpose: "providing rules of evidence that recognise the importance of the rights affirmed by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990". This requires the Courts to recognise the absolute nature of the accused's right to a fair trial.]

Again, cl 8, referred to in the second instalment of this series of blog entries, states:

8 General exclusion
In any proceeding, the Judge must exclude evidence if its probative value is outweighed by the risk that the evidence will---
(a) have an unfairly prejudicial effect on the outcome of the proceeding; or
(b) needlessly prolong the proceeding.

This does not explain the point of view from which fairness is to be assessed. It is fairness to the accused that has primary importance.

[Update: the Evidence Act 2006, has a revised form of cl 8, adding the following as s 8(2): "In determining whether the probative value of evidence is outweighed by the risk that the evidence will have an unfairly prejudicial effect on a criminal proceeding, the Judge must take into account the right of the defendant to offer an effective defence." This should, together with the reference to the Bill of Rights in s 6, above, incorporate the requirement that the trial must be fair to the accused into the weighing exercise, making it the overriding requirement.]

It is not clear that the inherent jurisdiction of the court to act so as to prevent an abuse of its process will come to the rescue of the primary elements:

11 Inherent powers not affected
(1) The powers inherent in a court to regulate and prevent abuse of its procedure are not affected by this Act except to the extent that this Act provides otherwise.
(2) Despite subsection (1) a court must have regard to the purpose and the principles set out in sections 6 to 8 when exercising inherent powers to regulate and prevent abuse of its procedure.

[Update: the Evidence Act 2006 replaces subclause (1) of cl 11 with the following, as s 11(1):
"(1) The inherent and implied powers of a court are not affected by this Act,
except to the extent that this Act provides otherwise."]

It is unsatisfactory for the fundamental elements to be obscured by this vagueness.

The relationship between the legislation and the common law powers to prevent abuse of process are clearer in the Australian uniform Evidence Act 1995 (C’th), s 11 of which provides:

General powers of a court
(1) The power of a court to control the conduct of a proceeding is not affected by this Act, except so far as this Act provides otherwise expressly or by necessary intendment.
(2) In particular, the powers of a court with respect to abuse of process in a proceeding are not affected.

The Australian legislation, however, is also unsatisfactory in that its general provisions fail to distinguish fairness to the accused from fairness to the parties, and they give overarching importance to the flawed weighing of probative value against unfairly prejudicial effect (see the second blog entry in the present series).

It seems that the ideal legislative model has yet to be constructed. This is hardly surprising in this rapidly developing area of the common law. Many of the leading cases have been decided since the current project to revise our evidence law began.

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