Sunday, June 01, 2008

The basics

Instructions given by judges to juries on how to approach issues of credibility in the context of the burden and standard of proof are often the subject of appeals against conviction. This occurred in R v JHS [2008] SCC 30 (29 May 2008).

In Canada the leading case on what instructions are appropriate (generally, but always adaptable to the circumstances of a given case, so they are not in that sense mandatory) is R v W(D) [1991] 1 SCR 742 SCC, at 757-758:

“A trial judge might well instruct the jury on the question of credibility along these lines:
“First, if you believe the evidence of the accused, obviously you must acquit.
“Second, if you do not believe the testimony of the accused but you are left in reasonable doubt by it, you must acquit.
“Third, even if you are not left in doubt by the evidence of the accused, you must ask yourself whether, on the basis of the evidence which you do accept, you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt by that evidence of the guilt of the accused.”

“Nonetheless, the failure to use such language is not fatal if the charge, when read as a whole, makes it clear that the jury could not have been under any misapprehension as to the correct burden and standard of proof to apply . . . .”

The appellate court approaches the adequacy of a challenged instruction by reading the judge’s remarks as a whole, to ascertain whether the jury could have been left in a misapprehension as to the correct burden and standard of proof to apply.

In the circumstances in this appeal, the Supreme Court held that the judge’s directions had not misled the jury, and the appeal against the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal’s quashing of the conviction was allowed.

This case reminds me of two issues currently before the public in New Zealand: should the prosecution be able to appeal against a quashing of a conviction (or, indeed, against a jury verdict of not guilty); and, do juries, and the public, properly understand the burden and standard of proof in criminal cases?

Prosecution appeals
The kind of appeal to the ultimate appellate court that occurred in R v JHS could not have been brought in New Zealand. If the (first) Court of Appeal quashes a conviction, it may order a re-trial, but otherwise the quashing is final. There is no prosecution right of appeal to the Supreme Court against a refusal of the Court of Appeal to order a new trial.

The only way the prosecution can contest an acquittal is where a question of law was reserved by the trial judge for the opinion of the Court of Appeal. Either side may ask for such a question to be reserved, and if the judge refuses to reserve a question, either side may apply to the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal against that refusal. Only the convicted person may seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court from the Court of Appeal’s decision on a question of law; the prosecution is limited (in this context) to appeals to the Supreme Court on sentencing matters.

This structure reflects the law’s recognition of the finality of a verdict of not guilty. Essentially, this is a policy recognition of the imbalance in resources available to a person who is accused of a crime, and of the risk of oppression that repeated prosecutions would bring. There is some retreat from this position, for example in the United Kingdom, where acquittals for some serious offences may not be final (see Criminal Justice Act 2003[UK], Part 10). Currently in New Zealand the Criminal Procedure Bill proposes to permit retrial after an acquittal for an offence carrying a maximum penalty of 14 or more years’ imprisonment if that acquittal is tainted by the commission of an offence against the administration of justice, and if a judge of the High Court considers that a retrial is in the interests of justice. This Bill is currently stalled as the National Party (the main opposition party) refuses to support another of its reforms, the abolition in most cases of preliminary (deposition) hearings. The proposed permitting of retrial after acquittal does not appear to have attracted as much controversy in the legislature.

The tripartite direction and the burden and standard of proof
The equivalent of the Canadian R v W(D) instruction in New Zealand is the so-called tripartite direction. An illustration is R v Turner [2007] NZCA 427, where the Court did not criticise the trial judge’s instruction which had been in these terms, addressing the three possible effects of an accused’s evidence:

“The first is that a jury accepts entirely the important parts of his evidence and where that happens and if it happens here then obviously you are going to find this accused not guilty without hesitation. If you accept that this young lady initiated the sexual activity, became angry about some extraneous matter afterwards and has made up these allegations then of course he is not guilty.

“The second possibility is that the accused’s evidence might cause you reasonable doubts about the things the Crown has to prove. Again, if you are in reasonable doubts about what the Crown has to prove after hearing from the accused, then he is entitled to be found not guilty.

“There is a third possibility about which you have to be careful. If you do not accept the evidence of the accused about the material parts of these events, that does not automatically mean he is guilty. Put the unacceptable evidence to one side. Remind yourself who has got to do the proving. Go back to the evidence of the complainant and ask yourself whether it satisfies you beyond reasonable doubt that her allegations are true.”

This direction is not mandatory. Where an accused has not given evidence in court but has made a statement to the police which is given in evidence, the tripartite direction may not be considered appropriate. In R v Martin [2007] NZCA 386 a more appropriate direction for this situation was:

“Statements made and interviews given by the accused to the police and to customs officers are not sworn evidence in the witness box, but they are part of the material for you to consider. What you make of the truthfulness, accuracy and weight of those statements made by the accused is for you to decide. In the same way that you may accept parts of what a witness said in evidence, and not accept other parts, you may accept parts of what was said in statements and not other parts.”

That has to be accompanied, of course, by a proper direction on the burden and standard of proof. This point was emphasised in R v Sturgeon 10/11/06, CA364/05:

“[18] It is necessary to look at the summing-up as a whole, because the real issue is whether there is any reasonable possibility that the jury might have misunderstood where the burden of proof lay.”

I have noted previously, in connection with R v Wanhalla (blogged here 25 August 2006), that the Court of Appeal does not require that the standard of proof be explained in terms of numerical probabilities, and nor is it considered desirable to invite the jurors to liken it to personal decisions they may have to make about very important matters in their own lives. (For discussion of the need to explain beyond reasonable doubt in probabilistic terms, see the article by Tillers and Gottfried, in Law Probability and Risk (2006) 5 135-157, and comments at 159 and 167.) Understandably, there is considerable difference of opinion about what “proved beyond reasonable doubt” means. Not only are there differences in perceptions of the appropriate level of proof, but there also appears to be widespread lack of understanding about what an acquittal means. Currently there is a great deal of discussion in New Zealand about acquittals in some high-profile cases. It is not unusual to hear comments such as “he was proved to be innocent” and “the police should now try to find the real offender”.

One such high-profile case involved a father accused of killing his twin babies. The defence at trial was that it was reasonably possible that the accused was not the killer but that the twins’ mother was. After the father’s acquittal, there were calls for the police to continue their investigation (nothing wrong with that) and, in the words of one commentator (NZ Herald Thurs May 29, Opinion column),

“If she faced a trial, [the mother] might ultimately be found not guilty beyond reasonable doubt. That is not the point; that is our system. On the evidence available, she should at least be put before the court to let another jury decide.”

These phrases “be found not guilty beyond reasonable doubt … that is our system” betray this misconception. Sad to say, that comment was made by a barrister. It’s just sloppy language, of course: he would instantly accept his error if it were to be pointed out to him. Judges too are inclined to fall into such traps.

No comments: