Friday, June 27, 2008

The customer appreciation party

Notable about Smith v R (Jamaica) [2008] UKPC (23 June 2008), aside from a sardonic and picturesque narrative of the facts (involving the fatal stabbing of “Ram Puss” at a street party in Kingston which was a “customer appreciation party” hosted by the appellant’s father at a shipping container which had been converted to a small “cook shop”), is a comment on the standard of proof of facts that have to be established before evidence becomes admissible.

Here, the evidence in question was a deposition made by an eyewitness who became too afraid to give evidence at trial. Certain matters, set out in s 31D of the Evidence Act 1843, had to be “proved to the satisfaction of the court”. The Board held, para 21, "In their Lordships' opinion the standard applicable is proof beyond reasonable doubt … ".

This is of particular interest at a time when courts are tending to be satisfied with proof of preliminary facts to the standard of the balance of probabilities: see for example R v Aylwin [2008] NZCA 154.

Other topics touched on are the duties of prosecution counsel, the probative/prejudicial effect balancing exercise, and the absence of a good character direction. On the latter, the Board held, at 30:

“The law has become clearer since the time of this trial and it hardly needs repetition now that a defendant is entitled to have a good character direction from the judge when the facts warrant it and that its absence may be a ground for setting aside a verdict of guilty. It is the duty of defence counsel to ensure that the defendant's good character is brought before the court, and failure to do so and obtain the appropriate direction may make a guilty verdict unsafe: Sealey & Headley v The State [2002] UKPC 52, (2002) 61 WIR 491; Teeluck & John v The State [2005] UKPC 14 [2005] 1 WLR 2421. It has, however, been emphasised by the Board in recent cases that the critical factor is whether it would have made a difference to the result if the direction had been given: see, eg Bhola v The State [2006] UKPC 9, (2006) 68 WIR 449, para 17, per Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. In the present case the appellant did not give evidence and merely made an unsworn statement from the dock, so that the credibility limb of the direction would have been of lesser consequence. The propensity limb might have been of some relevance, but their Lordships do not consider that, looking at the trial as a whole, it would have made any difference to the verdict.”

I have commented here on Teeluck (see blog for 1 April 2005). See also Gilbert v R (Grenada) (29 March 2006). The extract just quoted from Smith states the critical factor as “whether it would have made a difference to the result if the direction had been given”. At this point the Board teeters on the brink of a terrible mistake. It would involve, as I pointed out discussing Gilbert, treating procedural unfairness as being remedied by strong prosecution evidence. However in the last sentence the Board appears to regain its balance, if it is saying that absence of propensity evidence would not have caused the jury to give inappropriate weight to any of the prosecution evidence: that would be a procedural ground for the decision, not a strength of prosecution case ground.

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