Friday, December 15, 2006

Reliability and hearsay

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Canada made some observations on hearsay that are relevant to issues that will arise in New Zealand under our new Evidence Act 2006: R v Khelawon [2006] SCC 57 (14 December 2006).

The crucial provision in the Evidence Act 2006 that I will focus on here is s 8:

8 General exclusion

(1) In any proceeding, the Judge must exclude evidence if its probative value is outweighed by the risk that the evidence will---

(a) have an unfairly prejudicial effect on the outcome of the proceeding; or

(b) needlessly prolong the proceeding.

(2) In determining whether the probative value of evidence is outweighed by the risk that the evidence will have an unfairly prejudicial effect on a criminal proceeding, the Judge must take into account the right of the defendant to offer an effective defence.”

This “right of the defendant to offer an effective defence” echoes s 25(e) of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990: “The right to be present at the trial and to present a defence”, and the word “effective” invokes other aspects of s 25. The importance of the Bill of Rights is recognised in the Evidence Act 2006, s 6, where the purposes of the Act are stated to include “providing rules of evidence that recognise the importance of the rights affirmed by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990”.

The most fundamental of the rights in s 25 of the Bill of Rights is the accused’s right to a fair hearing. This right has been recognised by the New Zealand Supreme Court as fundamental and essential: Condon v R (blogged here, 24 August 2006). In Khelawon the Court recognised, at para 47, the link between the right to make a full answer in defence and the right to a fair trial, saying that this introduced a “constitutional dimension.”

Hearsay evidence is presumptively inadmissible, but it may be admitted. An essential for admissibility is that the circumstances relating to the statement provide reasonable assurance that it is reliable: Evidence Act 2006, s 18(1).

The Supreme Court of Canada, in Khelawon, has analysed the reliability requirement for admission of hearsay statements. Essentially, it held that reliability may arise in two ways, but these are not mutually exclusive. The first is where reliability can be assessed by the trier of fact (usually, the jury). Here, there will be means by which the truth and accuracy of the statement can be tested, other than by cross-examination. In such cases, the judge does not need to inquire into the truth or accuracy of the statement, in determining its admissibility, as those are matters for the jury. We may question, with respect, whether it is appropriate to call this first a test for “reliability”, rather than a test for “safety” of admitting the evidence. The point is that it is safe to admit the evidence because in the circumstances of the case its reliability can properly be assessed by the jury.

The second sort of reliability in the Supreme Court of Canada’s analysis is where the trustworthiness of the statement is put forward as the reason for admitting it: here, the judge must inquire into the factors that tend to show whether the statement is true or not.

That, of course, doesn’t take the reliability issue very far, and it is unlikely to be a subject for analytical expansion as opposed to illustration by example. Of more interest here is the Court’s model of trial fairness. At para 48 the Court noted that trial fairness embraces more than the rights of the accused: it includes broader societal concerns, one of which is that the trial process should arrive at the truth. These broad interests were, said the Court, reflected in the twin principles behind the admission of hearsay evidence: the necessity principle (usually meaning that the maker of the statement is not available to give evidence), which reflects the truth-seeking interest, and the reliability principle, which reflects the need for integrity in the trial process. Other fair trial interests were reflected in the general discretion of the judge to exclude evidence where its prejudicial effect exceeded its probative value.

An implication of this analysis is that the last-mentioned discretion must be exercised in a way that recognises the absolute and essential nature of the accused’s right to a fair trial. One may question whether it is appropriate to exclude this right from the reliability principle, if indeed that is what the Canadian Court intended. It seems directly applicable to the safety aspect of reliability (how could it be safe to admit a statement if the accused’s inability to cross-examine its maker could give rise to a real risk of bias?). It may be that the New Zealand legislation has better placed the Bill of Rights concerns as one of the purposes of the Evidence Act 2006, second only to the provision of logical rules. In that context it has a bearing on all the rules, and the accused’s absolute and essential right to a fair trial remains an overarching requirement.

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