Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Helpful Acts?

Legislation can make the law absurdly complicated. In Tabe v R [2005] HCA 59 (6 October 2005) Australia’s senior judges split 3 – 2 on an issue that should have been simple. When a person is charged with attempting to get possession of a drug, does the prosecution have to prove that he believed that he could do so?

A refreshingly simple person would think the answer obvious. Why would someone try to get something unless he thought he could? Sad to say, in Queensland things are not so straightforward. That State’s Criminal Code, s 24, provides:

"(1) A person who does or omits to do an act under an honest and reasonable, but mistaken, belief in the existence of any state of things is not criminally responsible for the act or omission to any greater extent than if the real state of things had been such as the person believed to exist.
(2) The operation of this rule may be excluded by the express or implied provisions of the law relating to the subject."

Where this applies, an innocent belief will be a defence if it goes to an essential ingredient of the offence. So, if it is reasonably possible that you thought the thing you were trying to get was some substance you were entitled to have, you would not be guilty of unlawfully attempting to obtain a drug. Fair enough.

Unfortunately, the Drugs Misuse Act 1986 (Q), s 57, makes the position obscure. It provides, in para (d):

"(d) the operation of the Criminal Code, section 24 is excluded unless that person shows an honest and reasonable belief in the existence of any state of things material to the charge."

Seems redundant, you might think. However, one of the cherished ideas in what is called "statutory interpretation" (as if statutes were written in foreign languages) is that the words of an Act are to be given effect because the legislature would not have intended redundancy.

So, the next logical step seems to be to ask, what are the things that s 57(d) calls material to the charge? Section 57(d) appears to be saying that honest and reasonable mistakes about these are matters for the person charged to prove. This would give it an effect beyond that of s 24 of the Code, which may not place a burden of proof on the defendant. So the issue would then be, what does the prosecution have to prove, before the burden shifts to the defence if a mistake is being relied on?

Back to attempting to get possession of a drug. The physical ingredients of the offence were not critical in Tabe. It was not argued, on the facts of the case, that the defendant had not done acts sufficiently proximate to the completion of the offence to amount to an attempt to commit it. It was the mental elements of the offence that were the focus of the dispute.

On first principles, putting aside the judicial reasoning in Tabe, one would have thought that, if belief that the thing is a drug (the essence of the mistake which was, according to s 57(d) for the defence to prove) is not something that the prosecution has to prove, all that the prosecution must prove to establish a prima facie case is the defendant’s intention to perform the acts that he did. This, indeed, is what the majority held (Gleeson CJ in a separate judgment, and Callinan and Heydon JJ in a joint judgment).

The minority (McHugh and Hayne JJ, in separate judgments) saw the issue in two ways. McHugh J focused on the requirement of attempt that the defendant must have had an intention to commit an offence, so that an intention to obtain a drug (and hence a belief that the thing was a drug) was a matter for the prosecution to prove to establish a prima facie case. He also agreed with Hayne J’s approach, which reached the same conclusion by an analysis of the ingredients of possession.

I should point out, here, that none of the judges in Tabe used the expression "prima facie case" except (twice) where it appeared in quotations from another case. It is useful to remember the fundamentals of criminal law. Where an attemptis alleged, it is inevitable, if the prosecution case is to get off the ground, that evidence of belief in the existence of the thing sought, will have to be aduced. In Tabe, (I simplify the facts a little), the defendant thought that an envelope he was collecting contained a drug. It did not, because it had been intercepted by the police and its contents had been replaced with an innocuous powder. Hence the charge was attempt, rather than the full offence of possessing the drug. The evidence in the case included these background matters, and of course established a prima facie intention by the defendant to obtain a drug. Without that evidence, the prosecution could have hardly established a prima facie case by proving that the defendant went to collect an envelope. We would all be on trial, if that were sufficient.

Pragmatism must have motivated the Chief Justice of Australia to deliver the rather ham-fisted justification for his approach (para 20), namely that because most people charged with this claim that their intentions were innocent, that should be a matter for them to prove.

Legislation that speaks briefly can cause problems. Parliament need not try to emulate the Ten Commandments, admirable at least for their brevity. (Horace: "brevis essere laboro, obscurus fio." I try to be brief, but I become obscure.) Getting down to detail, in the tradition of Leviticus, can be appropriate. However this too can be taken too far, as our Sentencing Act 2002 illustrates; it reads like a Dummies guide. But, I digress. It would be appropriate for legislators to remember Cicero’s remark (De Natura Deorum, iii, iv): "The clarity of the case is impaired by arguments."

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