Friday, August 25, 2006

Checking the foundations

On this, the second anniversary of the start of this blogsite, when I am about to comment on a case where the meaning of "beyond reasonable doubt" was examined, and remembering that yesterday our Supreme Court ruled on the accused’s right to a fair trial, one might be excused for thinking that criminal law had only recently been invented. Surely, these fundamentals must have been settled centuries ago?

Well, criminal law is a living thing, with its basic assumptions and rules constantly under review. It involves the handling of complex concepts, and other disciplines, especially psychology, can make a significant contribution to our perceptions of what is currently appropriate.

A Full Bench of the New Zealand Court of Appeal, in R v Wanhalla 24/8/06, CA321/05, considered whether there should be adjustments to the standard way in which judges should direct juries on what the criminal standard of proof, proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" means.

In a joint judgment, William Young P, Chambers and Robertson JJ held that, although this was not intended to be a mandatory formula, the following direction should be of assistance in many cases (para 49):

"The starting point is the presumption of innocence. You must treat the accused as innocent until the Crown has proved his or her guilt. The presumption of innocence means that the accused does not have to give or call any evidence and does not have to establish his or her innocence.

"The Crown must prove that the accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Proof beyond reasonable doubt is a very high standard of proof which the Crown will have met only if, at the end of the case, you are sure that the accused is guilty.

"It is not enough for the Crown to persuade you that the accused is probably guilty or even that he or she is very likely guilty. On the other hand, it is virtually impossible to prove anything to an absolute certainty when dealing with the reconstruction of past events and the Crown does not have to do so.

"What then is reasonable doubt? A reasonable doubt is an honest and reasonable uncertainty left in your mind about the guilt of the accused after you have given careful and impartial consideration to all of the evidence.

"In summary, if, after careful and impartial consideration of the evidence, you are sure that the accused is guilty you
must find him or her guilty. On the other hand, if you are not sure that the accused is guilty, you must find him or her not guilty." [emphasis added]

It was also held that best practice is to avoid expressing reasonable doubt in terms of percentages (a point on which Glazebrook J had some doubt: para 107, 109), and not to use the "domestic analogy" of telling jurors that they should approach the matter as if they were making an important decision in their own lives (the Judges were more clearly unanimous on this point).

In her judgment, Glazebrook J embarked on a scholarly analysis of various jury studies that psychologists and legal experts have carried out. Her main concern was that jurors may be too inclined to be tolerant of prosecution failures of proof, ie too reluctant to recognise a doubt as reasonable. Some studies have found that jurors tend to think in terms of estimates of probabilities. Proof of the prosecution case to the standard of a likelihood of 75% often seems to be thought sufficient (some jurors think 50% is sufficient!), and Glazebrook J pointed out (para 107, 109) that it is arguable that 100% proof should be required, as the reasonable doubt standard is closer to that than it is to 75%.

Hammond J (who has the advantage over Glazebrook J of having been an experienced trial judge) felt that the arguments for and against revision of the standard approach to direction on reasonable doubt were evenly balanced. In fairness to the Crown, absolute certainty is not required (para 165), and therefore Hammond J did not favour the mathematisation of directions. He noted that experience has shown the need to emphasise that the standard is higher than even probabilities (para 167). He agreed that the direction proposed in the joint judgment (para 49, above) would meet the needs of the vast majority of cases, yet also observed that the actual direction in a particular case should be left to the discretion of the trial judge (para 171, citing Privy Council authority for that).

My concern is with one aspect of the direction in the joint judgment (above), a concern not mentioned by any of the Judges. This focuses on the word I have italicised. A direction that the jury "must" find the accused guilty if sure that the accused is guilty, is contrary to an important constitutional safeguard. This safeguard, which in practice is one of those things that dare not speak its name, and so is never mentioned although ever-present, is the power of the jury to perversely acquit the accused. Occasions for them to do this may arise if they feel that something deeply objectionable occurred in the police investigation of the case, or in the presentation of the prosecution evidence. Authority for this is discussed in R v Wang, blogged here on 14 February 2005.

No comments: