Monday, February 05, 2007

Appeal verdicts

How should an appellate court decide whether a verdict is safe? It is difficult to find agreement among senior appellate judges on the safety of verdicts, even where they express the relevant legal approach in similar terms. Only last week the Supreme Court of Canada split 5 – 4 on whether a verdict in a lower court was reasonable: R v Beaudry [2007] SCC 5 (31 January 2007).

I have previously mentioned here several cases on this difficulty: Dial v The State (Trinidad and Tobago) 17 February 2005, R v Stevens 25 October 2005, Taylor v R (Jamaica) 14 March 2006. And next month, the Privy Council will hear an appeal, the last from New Zealand, by David Bain, which concerns whether convictions for murders should be upheld in the light of fresh evidence.

In Beaudry the majority emphasised that it is the verdict that is reviewed, not the process that was followed to reach it. An error of reasoning in the lower court (here the trial was by judge alone, so reasons for the verdict were available for inspection on appeal) did not, of itself, mean that the verdict was unsafe; instead, the appellate court had to thoroughly reexamine the evidence, bringing to bear the weight of its judicial experience in deciding whether the verdict was a reasonable one (para 58).

I will, I hope, be forgiven for thinking that that is a very vague formulation of the proper appellate task. Some help might be obtained from a combination of dicta from the cases mentioned above, so that the question for the appellate court is whether a jury might, on a proper approach, have a reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt (Dial), bearing in mind that the jury may have different perceptions of the facts from the perceptions entertained by appellate judges (Stevens), and that the jury must rule out all inferences consistent with innocence before it can convict (Taylor).

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