Monday, June 18, 2007

Clarity and obscurity

One of the things that makes law both difficult and interesting is the shift between clarity and obscurity. Authoritative statements of the law, expressed clearly and simply, and in apparently absolute terms, tend later to be qualified by cases in which those requirements are not treated as absolute.

Readers of Daniel and others v The State of Trinidad and Tobago [2007] UKPC 39 (13 June 2007) will, no doubt, be reminded of this characteristic of the law. In addition to the clarity/obscurity shift, there can also be a failure to offer a precise statement of law notwithstanding that the opportunity for such has arisen. Here, the Board declined (para 34) to formulate rules subsidiary to the requirement that a person in custody be informed of his right to legal advice. One of the appellants, being illiterate and therefore probably at some disadvantage, had been told of his right to a lawyer but had not been told how he might exercise that right. The Board held that it was a matter for the judge in the circumstances of each case to decide whether the defendant had been properly informed of his right to legal advice. In contrast, the approach that the Board took to this right in Ramsarran v Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago [2005] UKPC 8 (blogged here 28 February 2005) emphasises the social utility in facilitating the right to legal advice. That case, not cited in Daniel, concerned arrest on warrant for outstanding fines, whereas this involved murder.

Another point of appeal raised in Daniel was the omission of a good character direction, caused by the defendant’s counsel’s failure to raise the matter. This is something, the effect of which depends on the circumstances of each case; there are some cases where omission of mention of the defendant’s good character can result in the quashing of a conviction: see the blog on Gilbert v R 29 March 2006. In Daniel the omission of the point was held not to have prejudiced the fairness of the trial, as the defendant had been in custody awaiting trial on other serious charges at the time of his trial for murder. The Board held that the risk of this being disclosed to the jury if character were put in issue made counsel’s omission understandable.

An interesting, although not novel, point about secondary liability was mentioned in Daniel. Departure from a joint enterprise (or common intention) by one offender, who embarks on the commission of an offence outside that joint enterprise, can be followed by a decision by another offender to assist him in the commission of that new offence. The Board said this about secondary liability (para 38):

“The concepts of joint enterprise and aiding and abetting cannot be placed into watertight compartments. A defendant may have joined an enterprise to commit one crime, only to find that his companions went beyond what he had contemplated and so in committing a different crime were acting outside the bounds of the joint enterprise. He may nevertheless have remained with them and lent assistance or encouragement to them in the commission of the new crime, which would make him a secondary party as an aider and abettor. The judge may have failed to appreciate this in categorising the appellants' participation exclusively as members of a joint enterprise in the case of Daniel and Archibald and as aiders and abettors in the case of Garcia and Marshall. This did not operate to their disadvantage, however, and if his directions were sufficient on the content of each concept and there was evidence on which they could properly so find, the jury were entitled to find the appellants guilty on the basis ascribed to each by the judge.”

Another topic raised in Daniel was inferences. The judge had not told the jury that they must exclude every inference consistent with innocence before they could find an accused guilty. (I will call that the exclusionary direction.) Instead, the normal direction on circumstantial evidence was given, amounting to little more than a reminder that guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. The exclusionary aspect of the inferences direction was emphasised in Taylor v R (blogged 14 March 2006), and the need to consider inferences of innocence in the context of all the evidence in the case was stressed in R v Hillier (blogged 23 March 2007). These cases were not mentioned by the Board in Daniel. Whether the exclusionary direction needs to be given depends on what is appropriate in the circumstances of each case, as I noted in commenting on Taylor, but the vagueness of that approach means that the absence of an exclusionary direction on inferences will frequently become a matter for consideration on appeal.

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