Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Thou art far more fair than she ...

Is Australian criminal law really fairer than New Zealand’s? In Moloney v New Zealand [2006] FCA 438 (21 April 2006) (blogged here on 1 May 2006), Madgwick J thought it is. It is arguable that his approach to this matter was wrong. He should have used as fundamental a point that he did note, namely that since New Zealand, like Australia, is a party to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and, further to what he noted, that since New Zealand, unlike Australia, has the accused’s right to a fair trial included in a Bill of Rights, courts in New Zealand are unlikely to tolerate an unfair trial.

The question would then have been, would New Zealand judges be likely to interpret their rules of evidence in a way that results in unfairness to the accused?

It is not a matter of comparing the rules in Australia with those in New Zealand, as Madgwick J did, because it is the result of the application of the rules that is critical. The real question in Moloney was, does the right to a fair trial in New Zealand have overriding importance?

I have argued that it does: see "The Accused’s Right to a Fair Trial: Absolute or Limitable?" [2005] New Zealand Law Review 217. I must acknowledge, however, that the mere fact that the eponymous question has to be asked indicates that in New Zealand there has been some doubt over whether the accused’s right to a fair trial overrides other rights and interests. My conclusion in that article was that the majority of senior New Zealand judges appear to accept the absolute view of the accused’s right to a fair trial. Concern over the status of trial fairness in New Zealand should focus on the grounds on which judges disagree over that.

In Moloney, Madgwick J gave two main reasons for concluding that trials of the relevant charges, allegations of historical sexual misconduct going back 22 to 31 years, on balance would be unlikely to be conducted fairly in New Zealand, if fairness is assessed by Australian standards. Each reason has its weaknesses.

The first reason concerned judicial warnings to the jury about the reasons that evidence by complainants about events that are allegedly remembered after so long a time may be unreliable, and reasons why the accused may be disadvantaged in challenging such allegations. In Australia such warnings, in cases of delay of this length, are apparently mandatory. That, at least, was the view of Madgwick J, and we may for present purposes assume that he was correct on this point. In New Zealand they are discretionary. What, then, is the significance of this difference?

As suggested above, the question should have been, would New Zealand judges be likely to decline to warn the jury about those matters in the circumstances of these cases? And, if they did not give the warning, would convictions be likely to be upheld on appeal; that is, would the Court of Appeal recognise that failure to give the warning amounted to a substantial miscarriage of justice?

The current state of development of the law in New Zealand is such that, while we may be reasonably sure that a trial judge would warn the jury, if he did not, we cannot be sure that an appellate court would regard that omission as a substantial miscarriage of justice. The problem of appellate recognition of substantial miscarriage of justice is not confined to New Zealand: the Privy Council not infrequently differs among its members on this. There is, therefore, reason for some unease on this score.

The second reason that Madgwick J gave was that in Australia the charges would be heard at separate trials, because the evidence of each complainant was only relevant to the allegations made by that complainant, whereas it seemed that in New Zealand a court would be likely to regard the evidence of some complainants as corroborative of the evidence of others, so that some joinder of trials may occur. This area of the law of evidence concerns what is usually called "similar fact" evidence. Essentially, where different complainants make similar allegations, one tends to increase the likelihood that another is true, unless there was evidence that they had colluded to concoct falsely similar stories. The proper focus of similar fact evidence, where it is admissible, is on the weight to be given to the evidence of the complainant whose allegations are being decided. The great danger of this evidence is that juries will go straight to a conclusion that the accused is the kind of person who does this sort of thing, so he must be guilty. In other words, the error would be to convict the accused for what is now alleged because of what he is said to have done before, rather than because this complainant is believable.

The law about similar facts has been problematic everywhere. This has often been because its admissibility has been linked to the criterion of whether the probative value of the evidence outweighs its illegitimately prejudicial effect. I have discussed this in "Probative value, illegitimate prejudice and the accused’s right to a fair trial" (2005) 29 Crim LJ 8. In Moloney, Madgwick J considered that in Australia the similar fact evidence would not be admissible. Assuming that to be so, would it be admissible in New Zealand? A leading case on this is R v Holtz. I have discussed this case in Misuse of Drugs, para 306, as follows:

"There could appear to be some withdrawal from the requirement of hallmark or striking similarity in R v Holtz [2003] 1 NZLR 667; (2002) 20 CRNZ 14 (CA). But whether that is so, and if so, whether it is to be taken as a generally applicable modification of the law, may be doubted. The Court observed at para 35 that it is wrong to look for principles of admissibility applicable to all evidence of past conduct in all circumstances. Identity was disputed in relation to some of the allegedly similar facts, and at para 43 the Court merely required a credible strand of circumstantial evidence pointing to the accused as the offender. However, a more rigorous requirement appeared at para 47, where it was stated that the evidence must be truly probative and cogent. In full, this crucial paragraph reads as follows:

"[47] The care with which evidence of similar acts is scrutinised is justified because of the prejudice that inevitably arises from the risk of guilt being improperly inferred from mere propensity or disposition evidenced by previous bad conduct. But, where the evidence is truly probative and cogent, admission is appropriate so long as the circumstances are such that, while allowing the probative value of the evidence to be availed of, the risk of improper use can be avoided by appropriate directions to the jury."

"It should be noted here that the requirement is that the risk of improper use of the evidence can be avoided, not just reduced to a level where it is outweighed by the probative value of the evidence."

If this criterion is applied strictly the "trial according to law" aspect of the right to a fair trial would be protected. Unfortunately, it cannot be said for certain, at present, that the "avoiding" of improper use of the evidence would be required, instead of merely the risk of improper use being "outweighed" by the probative value of the evidence. Again, on this point, one cannot be sure that judges in New Zealand would interpret this rule of evidence in a way that would ensure the dominance of the accused’s right to a fair trial.

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