Sunday, July 20, 2008

Probative value and prejudicial effect

In M v R [2008] NZSC 52 the Supreme Court refused leave to appeal in a case where the Court of Appeal ([2008] NZCA 112) had been split over whether the trial had been fair. The issue was whether there had been a substantial miscarriage of justice (an unfair trial), so this was not the occasion for an examination of one of the most intractable problems in the law of evidence.

That problem is how to decide whether the probative value of proposed evidence is outweighed by the prejudicial effect of ruling it admissible. In New Zealand the statutory formulation of this decision is in s 8 Evidence Act 2006. It has some common ground with the substantial miscarriage of justice issue, in that the fairness of the trial governs each decision.

The three Court of Appeal Judges in M delivered a joint decision which mentioned that a member of the Court, who it did not identify, disagreed with the other two on the fairness issue. The question was, what was the effect of the admission of inadmissible evidence: the accused had been charged with sexual offending and when he was questioned by the police he was asked whether he himself had been abused when he was young, and he said he didn’t know. Under cross-examination the officer who had interviewed the accused said he had asked that question as a way of leading to asking the accused how it might affect his own parenting. The officer denied he was suggesting that if the accused had been abused he would be more likely to be an abuser, and added that he understood that only around 20% of such people went on to become abusers.

The majority view is expressed in the judgment in this way:

“13 A majority of the Court are of the view that although the evidence should not have been led, it appeared to be the subject of cross-examination to use it rather than to overcome it. That is consistent with how the case was advanced with its focus on the complainant’s credibility. Reflecting the sustained attack on her when she gave evidence, the defence stance in closing was that this case involved a very unequal and unfair contrast between a young, intelligent, highly articulate and venal woman, at the height of her powers who had prepared carefully, and an elderly man, no longer in command of his mind or memory, who could only react. In their view there is no risk of miscarriage of justice arising from the admission of this evidence.

“14 The ‘statistic’ drawn out in cross-examination …, that a proportion of around 20 per cent of those who are abused then go on to commit abuse, is not a particularly significant statistic. Further, the appellant was acquitted on one count of indecent assault on a girl under 12. The complainant's recollection of the facts giving rise to that count (incidents of oral sex) was not clear but the differing verdicts suggest the jury had been able to discriminate (consistent with the Judge's directions on the burden and onus of proof) and was not simply applying propensity reasoning.”


This does not, of course, address the terms of s 8, but the relationship with the substantial miscarriage of justice question is apparent in that the evidence, being inadmissible, had no probative value, so the real question was whether there was an unacceptable risk of illegitimate prejudicial effect from its admission, bearing in mind the accused’s right to a fair trial, which is the same as the s 8 right to offer an effective defence viewed in the context of s 6(b) of the Evidence Act 2006 which requires recognition of the accused's rights that are affirmed in the Bill of Rights.

Was there an unacceptable risk that the jury would, as a result of hearing the inadmissible evidence, have given more weight to the complainant’s evidence than it should, or less weight to the defence case? Even if the majority correctly reasoned that the difference in verdicts was attributable to impartial judgment rather than simply to a failure of probative value on the part of the complainant’s evidence on one count, does it follow that the jury were impartial on counts where the complainant’s evidence was detailed?

The judgment reports the minority Judge in these terms:

“16 The third member of the Court is of a different opinion. That member considers that the jury may well have improperly viewed the disputed evidence as predisposing the appellant to act in the manner alleged by the Crown. Acquittal on one of eight counts is no evidence to the contrary. It is quite likely that cross- examination on the topic was out of necessity, by way of attempt to meet what had been admitted, rather than a desired part of the defence case. There is however an outside chance that defence counsel received instructions to allow the evidence to be admitted in support of a sympathy plea. There was a suggestion at the hearing that there may have been a waiver of privilege by the appellant but no evidence resulted. That is a matter which should be explored by an invitation to the appellant focused on the present point, to consider whether to waive privilege so that the Crown may obtain from trial counsel an affidavit as to his instructions. But in the absence of any such instructions the appellant’s absolute right to a fair trial has been infringed by evidence which was highly prejudicial and should never have been admitted.”

This amounts to recognition of a high risk of bias against the accused arising from the wrongful admission of the evidence.

Three Justices of the Supreme Court declined leave to appeal from the Court of Appeal’s dismissal of the accused’s appeal, saying at para 2:

“…The Court [of Appeal] was divided on whether the admission of the evidence resulted in an unfair trial. That is not a question of law or fact of public or general importance as it is entirely dependent upon the facts of the particular case. And, importantly, overall there does appear to have been a fair trial and there is no appearance of any miscarriage of justice.”

So we will have to wait for any assistance the Supreme Court may wish to give on how the risk of an unfair trial is to be identified and dealt with. The basic question in M v R was, when do imputations against an accused’s character amount to illegitimate prejudice? That is one of the hot topics in the law of evidence. There has been a recent Report on it from the New Zealand Law Commission: (NZLC R 103) “Disclosure to Court of Defendants’ Previous Convictions, Similar Offending and Bad Character” (May 2008). This details the complexity of the issues as perceived by those who have discussed them. The appropriate risk of unfairness is treated like this:

“1.22 …The determination of what is "appropriate" can raise a complex mix of considerations. Amongst these are society's interest in conviction of the guilty and acquittal of the innocent; and also matters of practicability within jury trial process, and of human abilities. In the end, and within such constraints, the question of acceptable degree of risk and fairness involves a value judgement.”

This seems to suggest that the accused’s right to a fair trial must be adjusted to accommodate society's interest in a true verdict, which contradicts the position mentioned later, para 8.15, to the effect that the accused’s right to a fair trial is primary:

“In the end, the Commission's view is that in a contest of values, the need for a fair trial should continue to have primacy. The admissibility of evidence for the prosecution can and should go up to the limit which that permits, but not beyond. Policies governing the admissibility of evidence in criminal cases, including within that evidence of previous convictions, past misconduct, and bad character, should be shaped accordingly.”

The Commission thinks predictability will remain elusive:

“7.59 The weighing exercise, like all value judgements, will never produce entirely uniform and predictable outcomes across all judges on all occasions. Views on a particular case may, at times, vary quite sharply, even at the highest levels…[footnote omitted] However, this is unavoidable: any precise formula that did not involve the exercise of judgment would produce undue rigidity and therefore injustice.”

Nevertheless, in my view the exercise of judgment is worthy of study. It is important that it should be predictable and not arbitrary. Judges should not simply state their conclusions; they should give reasons.

The accused’s right to a fair trial is fundamental and absolute, so judicial difficulties in upholding it must be of great concern.

I could go on; in fact I do, here.

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