Monday, May 01, 2006

A difference of reasonable minds

Fairness can be a very difficult matter to agree on, as is demonstrated in cases where judges have differed among themselves: see, for illustrations, blog entries for 10 October 2004, 10 July 2005, 28 August 2005, 9 December 2005 and 7 March 2006. Applications to extradite suspects to other jurisdictions where fairness of trial may be questioned give rise to the issue of what is an acceptable risk of unfair trial in the foreign court. In Bagdanavicius [2005] UKHL 38 (blogged 26 May 2005) it was held that extradition must be refused if there are "substantial grounds" for believing there to be "a real risk" of mistreatment in the foreign jurisdiction.

In Moloney v New Zealand [2006] FCA 438 (21 April 2006) the Federal Court of Australia (Madgwick J) held (para 120) that the burden, on appeal, was on the defendants (those resisting extradition) to show there would probably be an injustice in extradition. This might (it is difficult to say, as the point is not discussed by Madgwick J) be an easier standard to satisfy than that required by the House of Lords in Bagdanavicius.

That aside, Moloney points to some areas in New Zealand criminal law that are not self-evidently fair. Diplomatically, Madgwick J acknowledges (para 108) that "reasonable minds may and do differ on what constitute the incidents of a fair trial", so that, in effect, this is a difference between friends. No insult being intended, the Federal Court held that, judged as it must be by the standards of Australian law (Bannister v New Zealand (1999) 86 FCR 417), trial of the charges in New Zealand would probably be unfair.

Moloney holds that New Zealand criminal law falls short of the Australian standard of fairness in the following respects:

(1) In cases of historical allegations, in Australia judges must warn the jury about the dangers inherent in accepting the evidence of complainants (this is called the direction in Longman v R (1989) 168 CLR 79 (HCA)), whereas the New Zealand Court of Appeal has rejected the mandatory requirement of a warning, preferring to leave the need for a warning as a matter for the judge to decide: R v M 13/11/95, CA187/95. This was held to be the factor that made the difference between Australian and New Zealand law sufficiently serious to prevent extradition. Australian courts regard the Longman direction as being "a vital requirement for a just trial in a case of long delay" (para 109). But there were other factors too.

(2) Whereas in Australian law it is clear that the charges would have to be heard separately, because similar fact evidence would be inadmissible, this was not so clear in New Zealand law (citing R v Holtz [2003] 1 NZLR 667, 675 (CA)). While this uncertainty made this factor less than decisive, it was, nevertheless, "a circumstance exacerbating the disabilities" caused to the defence and arising from the delay (paras 117, 123).

(3) Australia has rejected the use of representative charges (S v R (1989) 168 CLR 266 and KBT v R (1997) 191 CLR 417 (HCA)), whereas they are acceptable in New Zealand: para 110, quoting R v Accused [1993] 1 NZLR 385, 389 (CA). The objections to representative charges concern vagueness as to when the offence for which the accused is convicted occurred, and what facts were accepted as proof of it.

There was, in summary, between Australia and New Zealand "a fundamental difference as to the content of an effective right to a fair hearing, such right being recognised … as a basic human right" (para 113).

Apologists for New Zealand law might argue that, vague though the law may be, everything would turn out alright in the end, as appellate courts can take an overview and correct unfairness. Such wooliness is, indeed, behind the development of the law to this unsatisfactory state. Disturbingly, New Zealand has been led into this difference of "reasonable minds" by some of our foremost judges: participants in New Zealand Court of Appeal decisions cited in Moloney include Cooke P (now, Lord Cooke), Gault P, Richardson J (subsequently P), Casey, Hardie Boys, and Keith JJ. In this area, rules are preferable to discretions, and precision must be pushed as far as it will go.

Having said that, it should be acknowledged that a face-saving appeal against Madgwick J’s decision in Moloney could result in a different view of New Zealand’s approach to fairness. It could be held that Madgwick J was wrong to consider that in Australia a warning was inevitable in the circumstances of the case(s), citing Doggett v R (2001) 182 ALR 1 (HCA), where McHugh J dissented in holding that no warning was required in that case, as an illustration of how the need for a warning can be controversial. That would make the position on warnings as uncertain in Australia as it seems to be in New Zealand. Further, while the risk of evidence of other complainants being admissible on a similar fact basis seems to be high in New Zealand, it cannot be discounted in Australia either, because the merits of the case (correctly recognised as not relevant to the extradition decision) may give other complaints high probative value as corroboration. Such corroboration would, in turn, reduce the need for a warning in Australian law. The result could be that New Zealand’s law on fairness is not significantly different from Australia’s.

That, however, could be said to mean that the law on fair trials is equally unsatisfactory in each country.

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