Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Public debates on admissibility

Should the courts encourage public discussion of judicial decisions about the admissibility of evidence? This is one of the important questions raised by the New Zealand Court of Appeal yesterday in TVNZ v Rogers 7/8/06, CA12/06.

Because the decision in Rogers is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, I will not discuss the facts of the case in any but the most general of terms. In a criminal trial, evidence of a confession by R was ruled inadmissible and he was acquitted. Subsequently, a television programme was proposed, in which the video of the confession, which the police had given to TVNZ, would be played. The present proceedings concern whether an injunction should issue to prevent that publication.

The decision to rule the confession inadmissible at the criminal trial was, noted the Court of Appeal, not uncontroversial in law. The authorities did not all point in the same direction, and the method of weighing the competing values may have been flawed (see the joint judgment of O’Regan and Panckhurst JJ at [27], and the separate concurring judgment of William Young P at [127]). It is public discussion of this admissibility decision that the Court of Appeal seems to be encouraging.

The joint judgment makes this observation:

"[88] Although there is some substance in the Full Court’s [ie the court below] view that the content of the videotape may not add to informed public debate, it must be borne in mind that an evaluation of the reliability of disputed evidence, and of its importance to the prosecution case, is an aspect of the balancing exercise ordinarily required following a finding that evidence was obtained in breach of a suspect’s rights. The Court should be prepared to expose its reasoning process to scrutiny, to avoid perceptions of an attempt to stifle debate about its decision or about the conduct of the police officers whose conduct was under scrutiny in that decision."

And William Young P added:

"[128] I agree that the underlying issues can be debated without the videotape being shown on national television. But experience shows that arguments are usually more easily understood where they are contextualised. An esoteric argument about the way the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act is applied by the Courts becomes far more accessible to the public if the implications can be assessed by reference to the concrete facts of a particular case. In that context, to prohibit the proposed broadcast of the videotaped confession and reconstruction would necessarily have the tendency to limit legitimate public discussion on questions of genuine public interest."

Well, let us examine that thought. If public discussion is to have a point, it must be fully informed. To be fully informed, it needs to be acquainted with the different considerations that may be relevant to admissibility decisions. This requires some regard for the functions of the criminal trial, and the appropriate balance between truth seeking, on the one hand, and the extent to which police misconduct in the obtaining of evidence should be tolerated, on the other. Two extremes are apparent: admit all probative evidence, or, exclude all evidence tainted by the misconduct of officials.

Members of the public can discuss and decide where on the continuum between these extremes they individually lie. It is plain that unanimity could not be expected, and people may find themselves taking different positions depending on the nature of a particular case.

This is where the utility of publishing the details of R v Rogers (ie the criminal case) may be questioned. It is the sort of case that is likely to attract an extreme position on admissibility. It illustrates a very small part of the continuum of cases, and so is likely to illuminate only a small part of the proposed admissibility debate. This gives rise to synecdoche: the taking of a part of something to represent its whole. The entire question of how admissibility of wrongfully obtained evidence should be decided is not fairly posed by an extreme example.

The Court of Appeal is alert to the public’s tendency to employ synecdoche. In a decision delivered the same day as Rogers, by a differently constituted bench ("bench": metonymy and synecdoche!), the Court of Appeal in Marfart and Prieur v TVNZ 7/8/06, CA92/05 said:

"[62] One of the complaints made - with considerable force - against contemporary media is that what it routinely does in forming mental pictures is to use synecdoche: the portrayal of a part for the whole. (See Miller The Anatomy of Disgust (1998)). It is a common and lamentable part of entering the public gaze that the media tends to promote one salient feature of an incident (often glorified as a 30-second sound
byte), with unfortunate and unfair results. Not the least is a refusal (or at least a misportrayal) which fails to respect the fact that people may well be different in private than in public."

Pragmatism will dictate different approaches to admissibility decisions, depending on who is looking at the decision. Lawyers will look for an approach that is predictable in outcome, so that the likely prospects of a successful challenge can be assessed. Judges will look for an approach that balances the multitude of relevant considerations – interests of the accused, the prosecution, victims, the public, and the overarching need for a fair trial. Members of the public, as interested observers of the administration of justice, will look for an approach to admissibility decisions that reflects their own values.

The central idea is that of "instrumental truth" in the sense used by William James in his second lecture, entitled "What Pragmatism Means", in Pragmatism (1907):

"Truth in our ideas and beliefs means … that ideas, (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get in to satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience …". (James’s emphasis)

I would apply that to our present context in this way: the right or "true" answer to an admissibility problem is that which most satisfactorily relates to the concerns we perceive as relevant. The point is that different people may see different things as being relevant to the determination of the admissibility of wrongfully obtained evidence. Have the courts adequately taken into account public interests, so that public unease about a particular case is misplaced? Shouldn't the real inquiry be why the police obtained the evidence wrongfully? What inadequacies in police training or attitudes permitted such misconduct to occur?

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