Friday, July 21, 2006

Fairer than you may want

The right to a fair trial is a right that the accused cannot waive.

This may seem a strange statement: why would the accused ever want to waive the right to a fair trial? Well, trial tactics are complicated things. If charged with one serious offence, the accused may prefer to hope for an outright acquittal on that rather than have the judge tell the jury that if they acquit on the serious charge they may then consider whether to convict on a lesser charge. A conviction on the lesser charge, and the consequence of imprisonment on that, may be something the accused would see as rendering his victory on the more serious charge Pyrrhic.

A fair trial is a trial conducted according to law. This means, as the House of Lords held this week in R v Coutts [2006] UKHL 39 (19 July 2006), that the jury must be fully informed about the alternatives available to it, whether either side want that or not. In Coutts, both sides agreed that the judge should not instruct the jury about the alternative of manslaughter, when the accused faced a solitary charge of murder. The Crown, confident that it would secure a conviction for murder, did not want the jury to instead convict for manslaughter, so, clothing its stance in the guise of a fairness objection, it argued that the accused was entitled to an acquittal if the jury had a doubt about the way the Crown had sought to prove its case for murder. The defence, having argued that the killing was accidental, did not want the risk of a conviction for manslaughter, because the sentence for that would, in the circumstances, be a lengthy term of imprisonment. Following the conviction for murder, the defence appealed, arguing that the judge should have directed the jury about manslaughter. The House of Lords upheld this argument and quashed the conviction, remitting the case so that a retrial could be considered.

Coutts establishes that fairness requires that the jury be fully informed about the law and the alternatives open for consideration in the particular case. Further, failure to inform the jury of the legal position amounts to a substantial miscarriage of justice. The appellate court does not enter into an inquiry about whether the jury only convicted the accused of the serious charge because it did not want him to walk free. To do that would be to engage in speculation. While a foundation of the system of trial by jury is the assumption that juries apply the directions on the law that judges give them (Lord Rodger, para 87), it is proper to recognise that the jury may be affected in its approach by the choices that it perceives as being available to it (an observation by Callinan J in the High Court of Australia case Gilbert v The Queen (2000) 201 CLR 414 para 101, quoted by Lord Bingham at para 20, Lord Hutton at 54, Lord Rodger at 88 and Lord Mance at 99).

Accordingly, the public interest in the administration of justice is best served if the judge leaves any obvious alternative offence to the jury irrespective of the wishes of counsel. Lord Bingham, with whom the other law lords agreed, put the requirement as follows (para 23):

"The public interest in the administration of justice is, in my opinion, best served if in any trial on indictment the trial judge leaves to the jury, subject to any appropriate caution or warning, but irrespective of the wishes of trial counsel, any obvious alternative offence which there is evidence to support. I would not extend the rule to summary proceedings since, for all their potential importance to individuals, they do not engage the public interest to the same degree. I would also confine the rule to alternative verdicts obviously raised by the evidence: by that I refer to alternatives which should suggest themselves to the mind of any ordinarily knowledgeable and alert criminal judge, excluding alternatives which ingenious counsel may identify through diligent research after the trial. Application of this rule may in some cases benefit the defendant, protecting him against an excessive conviction. In other cases it may benefit the public, by providing for the conviction of a lawbreaker who deserves punishment. A defendant may, quite reasonably from his point of view, choose to roll the dice. But the interests of society should not depend on such a contingency.

"24. It is of course fundamental that the duty to leave lesser verdicts to the jury should not be exercised so as to infringe a defendant's right to a fair trial. This might be so if it were shown that decisions were made at trial which would not have been made had the possibility of such a verdict been envisaged. But no such infringement has ordinarily been found where there is evidence of provocation not relied on by the defence, nor will it ordinarily be unfair to leave an alternative where a defendant who, resisting conviction of a more serious offence, succeeds in throwing doubt on an ingredient of that offence and is as a result convicted of a lesser offence lacking that ingredient. There may be unfairness if the jury first learn of the alternative from the judge's summing-up, when counsel have not had the opportunity to address it in their closing speeches. But that risk is met if the proposed direction is indicated to counsel at some stage before they make their closing speeches. They can continue to discount the alternative in their closing speeches, but they can address the jury with knowledge of what the judge will direct. Had this course been followed in the present case there would have been no unfairness to the appellant, and while taking a contrary view the Court of Appeal did not identify the unfairness which it held would arise. It is not unfair to deprive a defendant, timeously alerted to the possibility, of what may be an adventitious acquittal."

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