Thursday, September 04, 2008

Business as usual

Like everyone else, I spend much of my time looking out the window. Except for blind people of course. And those in cells without views. My view is of a forest that looks much as it must have millions of years ago, minus the large and dangerous fauna. I say millions of years with some confidence, as this part of the North Island apparently dates from the late Jurassic. The exasperations of the law have caused me to look at this scene many times. One of the things I wonder about, and have done so today, is why so many criminal appeals are concerned with points that should be obvious.

Vast numbers of criminal appeals are futile, or result from errors that should never have happened. If there is something wrong with this, who is to blame? Are lower courts wilfully contrary or hopelessly dull witted? Are counsel afraid to advise against appeals? Richard Posner in “How Judges Think” (2008, Harvard University Press) says that the high number of criminal appeals is due to appellants not having to pay any costs.

Should lawyers take more responsibility for making decisions – or, more properly, giving firm advice – based on the prospects of success on appeal? Do insurance policies protecting counsel from liability for negligence require that every avenue be explored? Should there be some penalty on judges who make fundamental errors (send them back for a stint in the jurisdiction of first instance)?

It is very rare in a busy criminal practice to come across a point that is genuinely worth appealing. At least it is if the case has been properly handled in the lower court. You would not think so if you got your impressions from reading appellate cases. Those may suggest that every case bristles with genuine appeal points. But they are a very small proportion of the number of cases that are commenced.

But enough of the preamble. Today the High Court of Australia decided that supply of cocaine is likely to seriously endanger the health of the end user: Gedeon v Commissioner NSW Crime Commission [2008] HCA 43. I look out the window and sigh.

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