Thursday, March 22, 2007

The third way

For an interesting study in how the most senior judges can differ over problems in criminal law, one need go no further than yesterday’s decision by the High Court of Australia in R v Taufahema [2007] HCA 11 (21 March 2007).

Here, a policeman had been shot dead by a man who got out of a car, of which the respondent, in this Crown appeal, was the driver. There were four occupants in this car, all on parole, all carrying guns, and with them in the car were 2 pairs of gloves and a hockey mask. The car had been, briefly – for up to 20 seconds – chased by the officer in a patrol car, until it came to a halt in an accidental collision. That was when the murderer, Mr P, got out with his gun and killed the victim.

The prosecution’s case had been advanced in two ways at trial. Initially, it was alleged that the men in the car had agreed among themselves to use guns to prevent their being apprehended. By the end of the evidence in the trial, the prosecutor, after a lengthy discussion with the judge, decided to put the case to the jury on the basis that the common agreement between the men was simply to assist each other to avoid apprehension. The advantage this gave the prosecution was that it was unnecessary for the jury to decide that the use of a gun was part of this common agreement. The respondent, Mr T, was convicted of murder as a secondary party, and that must have been because the jury was satisfied that he had foreseen the possibility that, in avoiding arrest, one of the others would use a gun.

Mr T appealed against his conviction to the CCA NSW, on the basis that before he could be liable in this way, a common intent to commit a crime would have to be proved, and here, escaping apprehension was not a crime. Since there was no “foundational” crime, the CCA quashed his conviction and entered an acquittal. The Crown applied, in this present case, to the High Court of Australia for leave to appeal this decision, and for an order for a new trial.

The High Court held, by a majority of 4 to 3, that there should be a new trial. The dissenters were, jointly, Gleeson CJ and Callinan J, and in a separate judgment, Kirby J. The majority (Gummow, Hayne, Heydon and Crennan JJ) delivered a joint judgment.

The Crown’s application was to advance the case on the basis that the men in the car had planned to commit robbery, and this killing was a foreseeable consequence of the pursuit of that common purpose. This way of inviting a conviction had not been offered before in the proceedings.

The main issues were:

  •  Should the public interest in the prosecution and conviction of offenders govern the decision?

  •  Should the prosecution be bound by its tactical decisions at trial?

  •  Would ordering a new trial amount to giving the prosecution an opportunity to make a new case, contrary to principles of avoiding double jeopardy?

  •  Should the prosecution be allowed to raise the new point on appeal, when it hadn’t raised it either at trial or on the appeal in the court below?

  •  Was there sufficient evidence of the newly proposed common purpose to warrant a new trial?

  •  How difficult should it be for an appellate court’s order for an acquittal to be overturned?

  •  How much involvement should judges have in the way the prosecution chose to bring its case, especially if the prosecution could be said to have squandered its chances at trial?

  •  Does the jurisdiction of the High Court of Australia include acting as an appellate court or as a court of error? Is the HCA limited to reviewing the exercise of a discretion by the CCA?

  •  Was there a miscarriage of justice for which a more adequate remedy was available than an order for a new trial, or did the fact that this was the murder of a policeman require a decision by a jury rather than an acquittal arising from a deficiency in the law?

The case illustrates how important matters of policy can arise from relatively straightforward facts. So many policy issues arose here that any decision could have been justified, which explains the 4 - 3 division between the High Court justices.

The problem with the case at the trial was that the prosecution became conscious of the weakness of the available inference of agreement to use a gun to prevent apprehension, which was the original basis on which it put its case. Instead of accepting almost inevitable defeat, the prosecution changed its stance. It would have been possible to allege, at the outset, liability in the third way - that identified on appeal, involving an allegation of an agreement to commit robbery. Had that been done, the defence would have been fully informed of its jeopardy before the trial.

Sometimes, however, mistakes just can't be allowed to happen.

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