Friday, May 11, 2007

Justices Marple, Holmes and Poirot

Stating the law is one thing, applying it another. An appellate court may be able correctly to state the way it should approach the question of whether there has been a substantial miscarriage of justice in the case before it, yet, when it comes to deciding the appeal, it may contravene its own statement of the law.

This fundamental error occurred in the New Zealand Court of Appeal’s decision which yesterday was overturned by the Privy Council: Bain v R (New Zealand) [2007] UKPC (10 May 2007).

The law as to how the question of substantial miscarriage of justice should be determined was set out by the Court, and quoted by the Board (para 35), as follows:

"The court went on, in paragraph 24 of its judgment, to observe that when fresh evidence is admitted, it must move on to the next stage of the enquiry
“which is whether its existence demonstrates there has been a miscarriage of justice in the sense of there being a real risk that a miscarriage of justice has occurred on account of the new evidence not being before the jury which convicted the appellant. Such a real risk will exist if, as it is put in the cases, the new evidence, when considered alongside the evidence given at the trial, might reasonably have led the jury to return a verdict of not guilty.”

“The court pointed out (paragraph 25) that its concern is whether the jury, not the court, would nevertheless have convicted had the posited miscarriage of justice not occurred. This was consistent with
“the fundamental point that the ultimate issue whether an accused person is guilty or not guilty is for a jury, not for Judges. The appellate court acts as a screen through which the further evidence must pass. It is not the ultimate arbiter of guilt, save in the practical sense that this is the effect of applying the proviso, or ruling that the new evidence could not reasonably have affected the result.”"

It was surprising, after such a precise statement of the appellate court’s role, that the Court of Appeal should then have embarked on a detailed analysis of the evidence and come to its own determination of the appellant’s guilt. As I observed in an article mentioning this case, “Proof, fairness and the proviso” [2006] NZLJ 156, 158 (copy available on this link): “ … we are left to wonder whether a jury would have reached the same conclusion at a new trial.”

The Privy Council held that only a jury could assess the impact of the fresh evidence that the defence had obtained. The Court of Appeal’s reasons for concluding that the appellant was guilty were based on assumptions and matters that had not been raised at trial. As to these (para 115):

“…The Board does not consider it necessary to review these points in detail, for three reasons. First, the issue of guilt is one for a properly informed and directed jury, not for an appellate court. Secondly, the issue is not whether there is or was evidence on which a jury could reasonably convict but whether there is or was evidence on which it might reasonably decline to do so. And, thirdly, a fair trial ordinarily requires that the jury hears the evidence it ought to hear before returning its verdict, and should not act on evidence which is, or may be, false or misleading. Even a guilty defendant is entitled to such a trial.”

And added (para 119):

“ … Where issues have not been fully and fairly considered by a trial jury, determination of guilt is not the task of appellate courts.”

The conclusion was that there had been a substantial miscarriage of justice (which became apparent only after the trial, when the fresh evidence came to light), that the convictions should be quashed and a retrial ordered.

The lesson here is that procedural fairness is of fundamental importance, and an improper focus on the apparent guilt of the appellant must not cause the appellate court to take over the role which is properly that of a jury.

As evidence of the temptation to overlook trial fairness and to focus on apparent guilt, we need only recall that in last year’s report by a retired High Court Judge on the likely occurrence of miscarriages of justice in trials in New Zealand, no criticism was made of the upholding of the Bain convictions.

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