Saturday, June 18, 2011

Risks, aversions, coercion, and provocation

A clutch of recent Privy Council decisions: the risks of dock identification, the Board's aversion to the death penalty, jury perception of coerced confessions, and puzzling over provocation.

R v Tido (Bahamas) [2011] UKPC 16 (15 June 2011) has some useful dicta on dock identification, application of the proviso where inadmissible evidence had been before the jury, and on the discretion to impose the death penalty in the worst cases of murder.

In Miguel v The State (Trinidad and Tobago) [2011] UKPC 14 (15 June 2011) there is an interesting point reiterated about the Mushtaq direction ([2005] UKHL 25, discussed here on 22 April 2005 and also, in the context of Wizzard [2007] UKPC 21 here on 6 April 2007). This is that there is a distinction between on the one hand denial that a statement was made at all, as where the defendant says the police coerced him to sign a confession they concocted, in which case the Mushtaq direction does not apply, and on the other hand acknowledgement that the confession was his but that it was coerced. In the latter case, where the question concerns the voluntariness of an acknowledged confession, Mushtaq does apply so that the jury must be directed to ignore it if they think it may have been obtained by coercion. This was the explanation of Mushtaq that had been given in Wizzard.

Although Mushtaq is discussed as if voluntariness were an issue on which the jury had to be unanimous, it seems obvious that unanimity is not required because each juror may find his own route to a decision on guilt, and it is only on the verdict that the members must be unanimous. So if a juror relies on the confession, that juror must be satisfied (beyond reasonable doubt - the standard applying to voluntariness here) that it was made voluntarily.

In Miguel the Board, once again, found a way to avoid upholding the death penalty. This time the reasoning focused on the interpretation of constitutional legislation.

The third decision of the Privy Council addresses provocation and fresh evidence that could be relevant to that defence: Lewis v The State (Trinidad and Tobago) [2011] UKPC 15 (15 June 2011). Provocation has been replaced in England and Wales by the partial defence of loss of control: ss 54-56 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009[UK], and Lord Brown for the Board commented [28]:

"...whatever difficulties may arise in England and Wales from the introduction last October of the new defence of loss of control in place of provocation, at least there will be fewer problems of the kind discussed above. The courts in Trinidad and Tobago however, must soldier on. It will now be for the Court of Appeal there to consider the question of provocation in the present case. We have no alternative but to remit the matter to them."
In Lewis the problems concerned identifying conduct by the victim that could qualify as provoking the defendant to lose self-control. Mere causing loss of self-control is insufficient, because then provocation would need to be considered whenever self-defence was raised (R v van Dongen (Anthony Gerrard) [2005] EWCA Crim 1728; [2005] 2 Cr App R 632 at para 42, quoted in Lewis at [16]). In Lewis the judge had decided not to leave provocation to the jury, and the Board upheld that (although because of fresh evidence the case was remitted to the Court of Appeal). This reflects a view that what is sufficient evidence of provocation is not a question of law but is best left to the common sense of the trial judge [13, 21]. It is necessary to distinguish killing as revenge from killing as a result of loss of self-control, but the Board felt it unhelpful to try to separate out the evidence of provocation from evidence of loss of self-control [15]; they are closely connected aspects of the first limb of provocation (the subjective requirement that the defendant was provoked into losing his self-control). This first limb is regarded as "a single composite" [16], and the judge will refuse to leave provocation to the jury if he concludes that it would be perverse for a jury to find that a reasonable person would do what the defendant did.

An illustration of a controversial reliance on provocation is Weatherston v R [2011] NZCA 276 (17 June 2011), a case which was a major motivation for the repeal of this partial defence in New Zealand. Our national sense of horror is such that we have yet to replace it with anything like loss of control. The difference between Lewis and Weatherston is small (I mean here that in each the defendant claimed to have lost self-control as a result of his sensitivity to the consequences of a terminated sexual relationship), and it is likely that if the judge in Weatherston had refused to leave provocation with the jury the Court of Appeal would have upheld that decision, and, in that event, our crisis over the existence of this partial defence may well not have occurred.

Although the best barristers say very little, I, by way of contrast, can add a bit about provocation. Earlier I mentioned Attorney-General for Jersey v Holley [2005] UKPC 23 (see the entry for 5 July 2005), and it is worth calling to mind the two-stage inquiry by which courts address issues of provocation. First, what level of provocation can the defendant properly claim to have experienced? This requires considering how a reasonable person with the defendant's characteristics would have felt the provocative words or conduct. It is a mix of objective and subjective considerations. No doubt one could fairly say it requires a considerable exercise of imagination to assess. Second, given the level of provocation assessed in that way, does it exceed the level that a reasonable person ought to be able to tolerate without losing self-control? This is an objective question. These questions  can be modified when the issue is whether provocation is a live issue in the case:  is there evidence of acts or words that could reasonably be taken as requiring an exercise of self-control by the defendant, and, if so, could it reasonably be concluded that the exercise of self-control so required was beyond the ability of a reasonable person to exercise? This latter question determines whether a loss of self-control could have been through provocation as opposed to being the result of malice.

How do the new "loss of control" provisions applicable to England and Wales, referred to above, deal with these issues? On the first question, the s 55 definition of "qualifying trigger" sets the objective standards for the nature of the provocative act or words (serious violence, extremely grave circumstances, justifiable sense of being seriously wronged), and the subjective requirements are in s 54 (loss of self-control caused by a qualifying trigger). The second question, whether a reasonable person would have lost self-control if subjected to the level of provocation experienced by the defendant, appears in s 54(1)(c), which sets the standard as that of a person of the defendant's age and sex and who has "a normal degree of tolerance and self-restraint". Overall, and I only generalise because there will be a lot of interpretative issues, this legislation has the important effect of ensuring that only seriously provocative acts or words can be the basis for this qualified defence.