Thursday, May 22, 2008

Preventing statutory unfairness

It may sometimes be unjust for the courts to wait for the legislature to extend the law to fully achieve its purpose. A stay of proceedings can be a means of avoiding an injustice that the legislature, had it considered the position, would itself have sought to avoid.

In R v Asfaw [2008] UKHL 31 (21 May 2008) the majority (Lords Bingham, Hope and Carswell) applied the stay of proceedings route to avoiding an injustice. The dissenters, Lords Rodger and Mance, would on ordinary principles of statutory interpretation have upheld the conviction.

Broadly, the appellant was a refugee who, in the course of escaping from Ethiopia, entered the UK at Heathrow and, while at the airport, used a false passport to try to board a flight to Washington DC. She was charged with two counts: using the false passport, and attempting to obtain air services by deception. The first charge carried a defence pursuant to legislation protecting refugees, while the second was not listed with the offences to which that defence was available.

Both charges arose from the same facts. Lord Bingham was concerned about the purpose of prosecuting the appellant for the second:

“31. The appellant … submitted that it was an abuse of the criminal process to prosecute her to conviction under count 2. That submission calls for closer consideration. It was not an abuse to prefer charges under both counts, since the respondent was entitled to question whether the appellant was a refugee, and if she was not neither the article nor the section could avail her. It is true that the two counts related to identical conduct and the second count served no obvious purpose, but the court could ensure, on conviction, that no disproportionate penalty was inflicted. If, however, the second count was included in the indictment in order to prevent the appellant from relying on the defence which section 31 would otherwise provide, I would share the Court of Appeal's view (para 24) that there would be strong grounds for contending that this was an abuse of process. It is not at all clear what legitimate purpose was sought to be served by including the second count, and it must be questioned whether there was any legitimate purpose.”

Section 31 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999[UK] provides for the relevant defence for refugees. The appellant had been acquitted on count 1, pursuant to this section, so there was no doubt that she was a refugee. Lord Bingham continued:

“32. … if [as they did] the jury were to acquit the appellant on count 1 in reliance on section 31, it would be both unfair and contrary to the intention of the statute to convict her on count 2. The Attorney General expressly recognised that additional offences might have to be added to section 31(3), and when such offences, requiring addition to the list, arose in individual cases it would plainly be necessary to avoid injustice in those cases. There was in my opinion a clear risk of injustice in this case if the jury were to acquit on count 1 but convict on count 2.”


“33 … If the jury convicted the appellant on count 1, rejecting her section 31 defence, there would have been no objection in principle to further prosecution of count 2. But the appellant would be likely in that situation to have pleaded guilty (as she did in response to the judge's ruling), and the question would arise whether further prosecution of count 2 could be justified: given that the judge had power to sentence the appellant to imprisonment for 10 years on count 1, it could scarcely be suggested that his powers of punishment were inadequate to reflect the appellant's culpability.”

Lord Hope agreed (para 69), calling the omission of the count 2 offence from the offences to which the relevant defence applied an “oversight” (para 67).

The dissenters interpreted the legislation as requiring the appellant to present herself to the UK authorities and to obtain valid travel documents if she wished to travel on to the United States, so both charges were justified. There was, on this view, no need to address the need for a remedy. On the majority approach, the appellant had still been fleeing from persecution when she was at Heathrow. The difference between the conclusions of the Law Lords here may not have occurred without this difference in perception of her situation.

The majority approach is an illustration of how injustice that would arise from a literal reading – and indeed from an ordinary and reasonable reading - of legislation can be avoided by a stay of proceedings at an appropriate time. This could not be taken as an illustration of the court refusing to enforce a statute, but it is a case where the unfair consequences of application of a statute were rejected and avoided by the court’s inherent power to prevent an abuse of process.

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