Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Sorry, I can’t think of a heading for this one ...

Pfennig v R (1995) 182 CLR 461; [1995] HCA 7 is rather restrictive on the admissibility of similar fact evidence. (See my discussion of this case in the entry for 26 April 2008.) Legislation may well take a different stance, as is illustrated by Roach v R [2011] HCA 12 (4 May 2011). A statute providing that relevant evidence is admissible unless it would be unfair to admit it (ss 130 and 132B of the Evidence Act 1977 (Q)) establishes a fairness discretion. The Pfennig rule does not require a balancing of the relevant considerations of probative value and prejudicial effect that is inherent in the fairness discretion, and it cannot be imported into the exercise of that discretion. As Heydon J noted at [64]:

"... The Pfennig test is very favourable to the interests of the accused and very restrictive of the prosecution's capacity to use similar fact evidence. In principle, many may think those to be attractive consequences of the test, but, as already noted, many legislatures, including the Queensland legislature, have not thought so. A construction of s 130 which would incorporate the Pfennig test when the court considers exercising its powers preserved by s 130 would be bringing in at the second stage of an admissibility inquiry a strict rule which the legislature had been concerned to exclude at the first stage by force of s 132B... ."
A couple of interesting points were considered in another case today: SKA v R[2011] HCA 13 (4 May 2011). When an appeal is on the grounds that the verdict was unreasonable, should the appellate court look at a video recording of the complainant's evidence? Should the appellate court have regard to the trial judge's report that stated he thought the verdict was wrong? The High Court was unanimous on those points: there would need to be special reasons for the appellate court to watch the video, as doing so could give undue emphasis to only part of the evidence in the case. If a full written record of the evidence is available it should usually be sufficient for appeal purposes. And the trial judge's opinion was normally irrelevant, it being for the appellate court to make its own assessment of the evidence. Here the majority of the High Court (French CJ, Gummow and Kiefel JJ) held that the lower appellate court had not carried out its function correctly, because it had not made its own independent assessment of the evidence; instead, it had simply asked whether there was, as a question of law, evidence to support the verdicts. No reason had been shown why the appellate court should view the recording, and there was no reason to treat the trial judge's opinion of the verdicts as being of assistance. Crennan J referred at [119] to Sloan [2001] NSWCCA 421; (2001) 126 A Crim R 188 on when a report from the trial judge might be appropriate:

"An important function of a report ... is to inform the Court of Criminal Appeal of any problems which might have emerged during the trial, which either do not appear on the face of the record, or which are imperfectly or ambiguously recorded.
"Another permissible and relevant function of such a report is its use, by a trial judge, to raise any matters of irregularity or otherwise, which may give cause for significant doubt in relation to a guilty verdict, and which again are not apparent upon a bare reading of the record.
" A third permissible reason for such a report is its provision, in response to a specific request from the Court of Criminal Appeal, in relation to any matter which may be of concern to it.
"Otherwise, in times where there is in existence an adequate system for court reporting, occasion for the provision of a ... report should only arise in exceptional circumstances. Its use in order to justify, or to explain a decision for which reasons should have been provided, is not such a circumstance."

For other approaches to how an appellate court should decide whether a verdict was unreasonable, see my discussion of Owen v R [2007] NZSC 102, noted here on 11 December 2007. In New Zealand we have an odd situation: if an appeal is brought on the grounds that the verdict was unreasonable, the appellate court will not reach its own decision on guilt or innocence, whereas if the appeal is brought on a ground which attracts the operation of the proviso, the appellate court will decide the question of guilt or innocence for itself. This is because of a relatively recent change in the interpretation of the legislation in which our Supreme Court blipped over to follow the High Court of Australia's decision in Weiss.