Friday, May 11, 2007

Howse of discontent

Another case (in addition to Bain, also decided on 10 May 2007, see blog below) in which a Court of Appeal thought that the case against the accused was strong enough to make errors at trial insufficient to amount to a substantial miscarriage of justice, is Bernard v The State (Trinidad and Tobago) [2007] UKPC 34 (10 May 2007).

Here, the court had compelled the accused to be represented at his murder trial by an inexperienced lawyer, who had only been admitted to the bar three months previously. There had been a failure to disclose material facts to the defence, as well as an understandable failure to make the most of the available forensic techniques that a more experienced counsel (“an older hand” para 25) would have had at his disposal.

The Board cited Randall v The Queen [2002] UKPC 19, [2002] 1 WLR 2237, 2251 as authority for the approach to take on the question whether errors at trial have resulted in unfairness, quoting para 28 of Randall:

“While reference has been made above to some of the rules which should be observed in a well-conducted trial to safeguard the fairness of the proceedings, it is not every departure from good practice which renders a trial unfair. Inevitably, in the course of a long trial, things are done or said which should not be done or said. Most occurrences of that kind do not undermine the integrity of the trial, particularly if they are isolated and particularly if, where appropriate, they are the subject of a clear judicial direction. It would emasculate the trial process, and undermine public confidence in the administration of criminal justice, if a standard of perfection were imposed that was incapable of attainment in practice. But the right of a criminal defendant to a fair trial is absolute. There will come a point when the departure from good practice is so gross, or so persistent, or so prejudicial, or so irremediable that an appellate court will have no choice but to condemn a trial as unfair and quash a conviction as unsafe, however strong the grounds for believing the defendant to be guilty. The right to a fair trial is one to be enjoyed by the guilty as well as the innocent, for a defendant is presumed to be innocent until proved to be otherwise in a fairly conducted trial.”

And added (para 29 of Bernard):

“There are statements in the Australian case of Wilde v The Queen (1988) 164 CLR 365 which, if taken out of context, could give support to a proposition that where the evidence against a defendant is overwhelmingly strong, the defects in procedure required for setting the verdict aside on the ground that the trial was unfair have to be such that there has scarcely been a trial at all. The Board applied the decision in Wilde v The Queen in the New Zealand appeal of Howse v The Queen [2005] UKPC 30, but it is not to be taken to have approved this formulation as the universally necessary criterion for proof of unfairness of a trial. In the context of the incorrect admission of evidence, the strength of the rest of the evidence will be material, but in a case of procedural unfairness their Lordships would regard the statement which they have quoted from Randall v The Queen as the appropriate approach. Determination of such an issue involves weighing the seriousness of the irregularities. If the defects were relatively minor, the trial may still be regarded as fair. Conversely, if they were sufficiently serious it cannot be accepted as fair, no matter how strong the evidence of guilt. In such a case it may also be said that the defendant was deprived of his constitutional right of due process.”

The distinction made here is between cases, like Howse, where the error at trial had been the wrongful admission of evidence, and cases like the present appeal, where the question was whether the error had involved procedural unfairness.

Whether this is a clear distinction remains to be seen. The wrongful admission of evidence could result in the fact-decider undertaking a biased task, so creating procedural unfairness, just as failure to disclose material facts to the defence, or failure to cast the doubt on the prosecution case that could have been cast, also gives rise to procedural unfairness.

Perhaps the Privy Council is, in Bernard, tactfully disagreeing with the contentious decision in Howse, where the Board was split 3-2. This, however, may be doubted, because this judgment was delivered by Lord Carswell, who had delivered the majority judgment in Howse. However, a reader of these decisions who applies the rule-of-thumb “Lord Bingham is never wrong” will note his absence from Howse and his presence in Bernard, in which only one judgment was delivered. Did Lord Bingham prompt this subtle qualification of the application of Wilde?

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