Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When the right hand unfairly finds out what the left has been doing

If something can go wrong, it will, and there can't be many criminal defence lawyers who will be surprised that there has been a glitch in relation to compulsory interviews concerning proceeds of crime.

See the discussion of X7 v Australian Crime Commission [2013] HCA 29 here on 27 June 2013, and Lee v New South Wales Crime Commission [2013] HCA 39 here on 10 October 2013.

By oversight, transcripts in relation to which there had been a suppression order were released to the prosecution before a criminal trial in Lee v The Queen [2014] HCA 20 (21 May 2014).

This went to the fairness of the trial, because the prosecutor obtained information about how the defence might be conducted and was put in a position to prepare cross-examination in the event that the defendant gave evidence. This was a forensic advantage to the prosecutor for which there was no legislative authority and which undermined the fundamental premise of a criminal trial, namely that the prosecutor is not entitled to the assistance of the defendant in pursuing a conviction.

There was no occasion here for a policy balancing of interests, such as occurs when evidence is improperly obtained [51]. Here the issue was not admissibility, but abuse of process. There could be no thought of applying the proviso, as it were, and saying that there was no substantial miscarriage of justice, because here the trial had been unfair. This was an example [48] of the kind of "serious breach of the presuppositions of the trial" referred to in Weiss v The Queen [2005] HCA 81 (discussed here on, for example, 25 June 2007). 

A retrial was ordered.

Was the trial unfair? Not in terms of the definition that emerges from case law: a trial where the law is accurately applied to facts determined impartially. The case was not concerned with whether the legal elements of an offence were accurately applied to facts determined without bias or without improper weight being given to particular items of evidence. The issue was not substantive fairness, but procedural fairness.

Procedural unfairness can be thought of as a kind of abuse of process. Here it concerned a breach of a fundamental right. Attention is on what the officials did, not on what the defendant did.