Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Changing perceptions of fairness

The law seems to move rather slowly for poor people in Trinidad and Tobago, if Krishna v The State (Trinidad and Tobago) [2011] UKPC 18 (6 July 2011) is anything to go by. The murder occurred on 26 May 1984, the conviction at trial was on 12 January 1988, the appeal to the Court of Appeal was dismissed on 5 October 1995, and the Privy Council quashed the conviction, refusing to order a retrial, just the other day.

The case is a lesson in how perceptions of trial fairness can change over time. The trial seems to have been conducted according to the law as it then was as far as a direction to the jury on the reason the judge had ruled a confession admissible was concerned. The judge told the jury that he had decided that the statement had been made voluntarily. The law on this changed subsequently, so that it is no longer proper for the judge to reveal to the jury a decision on admissibility: Mitchell v The Queen (Bahamas) [1998] UKPC 1; [1998] AC 695. This was therefore an error relevant to this appeal.

Another ground of appeal was the failure of the judge to give a proper accomplice direction. The Court of Appeal had applied the proviso on this point, but the Board considered this to be a material irregularity in the context of the judge's positive comments about that witness. The law on accomplice directions had been established in Davies v Director of Public Prosecutions [1954] AC 378, so this is not a point about changing perceptions of fairness. 

A third ground of appeal was that the judge had not given an adequate good character direction. The Board considered that on its own this would not have been sufficient to shake the safety of the conviction, and that because this was not a case where the defendant had given evidence and put his credibility against that of other witnesses, it would ignore this ground. But significant for my point about changing perceptions of fairness is the increased importance of good character directions that was established in developments in the law after this trial: R v Aziz [1996] AC 41. Had the trial occurred after Aziz, a stronger good character direction would have been required, although in this case its absence may not have been decisive (compare Brown v R (Jamaica) noted here 21 April 2005; Gilbert v R (Grenada) noted here 29 March 2006).

Mr Krishna was ordered, after 23 years in custody as a sentenced prisoner, to be immediately released:

"Strong though the evidence against the appellant was, the Board is unable to conclude that the jury would have inevitably convicted the appellant if these irregularities had not occurred."
Will there be an award of compensation? Better not to hold one's breath. Clearly the trial had been unfair, because it could not be said that the jury was impartial: the judge's comments on voluntariness indicated a preference for the police witness's credibility, and lack of an accomplice warning also told against impartiality. Given that the trial had not been fair, the conviction could not stand. The Board's comments on the strength of the case against the appellant were made in the context of whether to order a new trial, and as one was not ordered, compensation would be appropriate even under the meanest regimes; see my discussion of compensation here on 15 May 2011.