Saturday, March 31, 2012

Elucidating Weiss? Grappling with “substantial miscarriage of justice”

Another look at Weiss (noted here 16 January 2006, 9 February 2006, 25 June 2007, and various dates – search this site for "Weiss" – to 9 July 2009) and the proviso occurred in Baiada Poultry Ltd v R [2012] HCA 14 (30 March 2012).

In Baiada Poultry Ltd the jury had not been instructed on a requirement for commission of the offence, so the conclusion that there had been a substantial miscarriage of justice was unavoidable and the proviso should not have been applied by the lower appellate majority. A retrial was ordered.

Some of us are about to enjoy an appeal criterion that no longer involves the proviso: see s 232 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2011[NZ]. Nevertheless, some dicta in Baiada Poultry Ltd are of interest. The High Court of Australia continued its "back to the words of the legislation" approach to the requirement of a substantial miscarriage of justice: the phrase should not be replaced by judicially created categories of fundamental defects [23], [31]. Well, I don't think that refusal to say what a phrase means is particularly helpful: it invites re-invention of the wheel with each appeal. The reformed New Zealand law will omit the word "substantial" and will include a definition of "miscarriage of justice". Further elaboration of "unfair trial" will be needed, because counsel always have to say why they are submitting something was unfair.

Another point in Baiada Poultry Ltd is that it is unhelpful to describe the appellate court as exercising a discretion when it considers whether to apply the proviso. We New Zealanders will note that the new provision is mandatory in its terms: "must allow … appeal … if satisfied that …". It is unlikely that if an appeal turns on the assessment of fairness this will be considered a discretionary matter: it is plainly one of making a finding as a matter of law.

Again, in Baiada Poultry Ltd, where the fact that the jury convicted the defendant is being considered on appeal, regard must be had to the issues it was left to decide. If, as here, an issue had not been left to the jury, the verdict is irrelevant [28] and per Heydon J at [67].

And finally, a major point in Weiss was repeated: if the appellate court is satisfied that on the evidence properly admitted the defendant was guilty, that is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for applying the proviso. That is to say, even if he was obviously guilty, the defendant's appeal cannot be dismissed if his trial had been unfair. The difficulty here is that fairness encompasses errors that affected the result of the trial, that is, errors that affected the jury, and it is immaterial that the appellate court thinks the errors should not have affected the result. The High Court may be linking the proviso jurisprudence to a narrow definition of trial fairness.

I suggest the trial in Baiada Poultry Ltd was unfair because the law was not properly applied to the facts. In any event, the appeal was allowed because the Court of Appeal majority had, in evaluating the evidence, done so without sufficient information to support its conclusions [37]-[39] or had drawn conclusions that did not necessarily follow from the evidence (per Heydon J at [70]).