Friday, July 31, 2009

Disclosure, fair trial, truth and justice

No progress in development of the idea of the accused's right to a fair trial was made in R v Bjelland [2009] SCC 38 (30 July 2009).    

The remedy for untimely disclosure was discussed, and the court divided 4 – 3 on whether the availability of exclusion should be approached in a restricted way. The majority (per Rothstein J, with McLachlin CJ, LeBel, and Deschamps JJ) held that exclusion is only appropriate if there is no other way of protecting the accused's right to a fair trial or of avoiding compromise to the integrity of the justice system. Here, the judge had wrongly ordered exclusion because the trial could have been delayed further. The minority (per Fish J, with Binnie and Abella JJ) would not have reviewed the judge's decision as there had been no error on an approach that would have permitted wide discretion as to remedy, following the established approach to s 24(1) Charter.

So, what is a "fair trial"? The majority quoted (22) McLachlin J (as she then was) in R v Harrer 1995 CanLII 70 (S.C.C.), [1995] 3 S.C.R. 562 at 45:

"At base, a fair trial is a trial that appears fair, both from the perspective of the accused and the perspective of the community. A fair trial must not be confused with the most advantageous trial possible from the accused's point of view: R. v. Lyons, 1987 CanLII 25 (S.C.C.), [1987] 2 S.C.R. 309, at p. 362, per La Forest J. Nor must it be conflated with the perfect trial; in the real world, perfection is seldom attained. A fair trial is one which satisfies the public interest in getting at the truth, while preserving basic procedural fairness for the accused." [Emphasis added by the majority in Bjelland.]

So, fairness means "basic procedural fairness". Ho ho. Now we know.

This was linked to the idea of the trial as a search for truth. I thought the police investigation was a search for truth, and the trial a test of the strength of the evidence presented as a result of that search. The minority thought so too (65):

"The policy of the law in this regard was well put by Samuel Freedman, then Chief Justice of Manitoba, in this well-known passage:

"The objective of a criminal trial is justice. Is the quest of justice synonymous with the search for truth? In most cases, yes. Truth and justice will emerge in a happy coincidence. But not always. Nor should it be thought that the judicial process has necessarily failed if justice and truth do not end up in perfect harmony. . . . [T]he law makes its choice between competing values and declares it is better to close the case without all the available evidence being put on the record. We place a ceiling price on truth. It is glorious to possess, but not at unlimited cost. 'Truth, like all other good things, may be loved unwisely — may be pursued too keenly — may cost too much.' "

"(S. Freedman, "Admissions and Confessions", in R. E. Salhany and R. J. Carter, eds., Studies in Canadian Criminal Evidence (1972), 95, at p. 99, quoting Pearse v. Pearse (1846), 1 De G. & Sm. 11, 63 E.R. 950, at p. 957.)"

Nothing further was offered by the minority on what is a "fair trial".

The majority also held that the right to make full answer and defence does not include as a component the right to cross-examine at preliminary hearing (35). That is no doubt correct now that disclosure regimes have been formalised. No doubt there could be cases where the right to make a full answer requires an opportunity to cross-examine at preliminary hearing, but that opportunity would not amount to a general "right".

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