Thursday, May 11, 2017

The meaning of means: mental elements of drug importation in Australia

To find out what the law is you first look for relevant legislation. When deciding how to explain the law about the state of mind required for proof of unlawful importation into Australia of a border controlled drug, a judge will first look at the Criminal Code (C’th). Relevant sections are s 307.1 and the fault elements defined in ss 5.1 – 5.4.

The High Court of Australia in Smith v The Queen, The Queen v Afford [2017] HCA 19 (10 May 2017) (hereafter “Smith”) at [69] has given guidance as to how to logically apply this legislation to cases where the mental elements of unlawful importation of a narcotic are in issue.

These appeals reached the High Court because of difficulties around how the process of drawing inferences should be explained. Difficulties arose because of the need for intention as to one element but only recklessness as to another. Intention is necessary as to the bringing of a thing (whatever it may be) into Australia, and recklessness is sufficient as to whether it is a border controlled drug.

Inference drawing is a matter of proof. Proof of intention by inference can arise from circumstances which show that the defendant “was aware of the likelihood, in the sense that there was a significant or real chance, that his conduct involved [the prohibited] act and nevertheless persisted in that conduct”: Kural v The Queen (1987) 162 CLR 502, [1987] HCA 16 (and quoted in Smith at [7]). The statutory language changed after Kural, and now the concept of a significant or real chance calls to mind the phrase “a substantial risk” in the definition of recklessness (s 5.4).

The risk of confusing the old common law with the new statutory language no doubt lies behind the joint judgment’s comment in Smith at [68] that “looking to the future it might be preferable if directions given in cases like these were made to align more closely to the language of the Code, and in particular to the statutory definition of intent in s 5.2”.

In s 5.2(1), intention includes meaning to do something, here, to import the substance (at [6]). The Court’s guidance as to appropriate directions on the drawing of inferences include (at [69] para 8(ii)) that it is open to use a proven belief that there was a real or significant chance that the thing was done, to support an inference that it was meant to be done. This comes from the Kural exposition of the law, and needs to be read in the light of the Court’s fuller explanation. The point in Smith is that awareness of a real or significant chance means that “it is open to infer on the basis of all the facts and circumstances of the case that the accused intended to import the substance” (at [60]), and where “a person is aware of a real or significant chance of the presence of an extraneous substance in an object which the person brings into Australia, and does nothing by way of inspection or declaration to avoid the risk of its presence, the circumstances of the case strongly suggest that the person's state of mind is, in truth, that he or she is prepared to proceed with bringing the object into Australia even if the substance is in the object; and thus that the person means and intends to import the substance” (at [59]).

This is perilously close to recklessness at common law, and one must wonder whether attempts to substitute for the clear language of a statute are necessarily helpful. Did the word “means” in s 5.2(1) really need to be explained in terms of a real and substantial risk?

Knowledge, in law, includes wilful blindness. This is the state of mind of a person who ignores a suspicion because of a determination to remain ignorant of the truth. That person is deemed to know the truth. See R v Briscoe 2010 SCC 13, [2010] 1 SCR 411, and R v Martin [2007] NZCA 386 at [11] where consistency with R v Kural [1986] VR 673 at 676-678 is noted. So, acting with that knowledge is meaning to do that thing, and is intending to do it. This is different from recklessness, where a person simply fails to take the measures that a reasonable person would have taken to investigate whether the suspicion is true.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Interesting decisions pending

As you know by now, much of law involves waiting. Waiting for decisions of appellate courts gives law much of its suspense. Perhaps. Here are some interesting points awaiting determination:

Grounds for search

When the adequacy of grounds for a search are assessed, should illegally or improperly obtained information be disregarded? An appeal from [suppressed] [2015] NZCA 628 is on the way. [Update: Oops, this escaped my attention; it was decided on 29 March that information that has previously been ruled inadmissible may usually (except in extraordinary circumstances involving torture or violence) be used in an application for a warrant, but when admissibility of evidence consequently discovered is determined the illegality or impropriety will be relevant to the balancing exercise: [2017] NZSC 42. I expect the effect of this will be to reduce the exclusionary effect of s 30 of the Evidence Act 2006 by permitting the admission of improperly obtained evidence of less serious offences than previously.]

Mental elements of unlawful drug possession and related offences

Does the mental element that makes possession of a drug unlawful include recklessness? Related to this, is there a good-faith defence, and if so, when? I’m not sure if there are suppression orders still in effect in this one, but let’s pretend there are: see [suppressed?] [2016] NZSC 87 (leave granted). [Update: on 19 June 2017 the Supreme Court decided that recklessness is sufficient mens rea for drug offences if no more specific state of mind is specified in legislation. There is therefore no need for a separate good-faith defence. Suppression of some details continues so I just mention the citation: [2017] NZSC 89.]

Privacy balancing

When, if ever, is a defendant’s right to privacy diminished by another person’s privacy right that has been breached by the defendant? If breach of another person’s privacy does reduce the defendant’s own privacy right for the purposes of the admissibility balancing exercise, would it be double-counting to also take the breach of the other person’s privacy as increasing the public interest in admitting the evidence? More abstractly, can policy justify compromising the logic of the balancing exercise, and if so, when? See [name suppressed] (CA597/2016) v R [2017] NZCA 118, granting leave for a second pre-trial appeal.

Is an electronic file an object?

The “Dotcom” case continues its slow climb up the judicial hierarchy, but it seems to me that the central point is easy to state (and should be easy to decide): is an electronic file an object in which there can be a copyright? An appeal, or two appeals, from Ortmann v United States of America [2017] NZHC 189 (see [169]-[192]) could settle that.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Arnold Solution

I ask, just for fun, whether you have read Thurman Arnold’s “The Role of Substantive Law and Procedure in the Legal Process”. It is available courtesy of the Yale Law School’s Faculty Scholarship Series, here, and will also be found in 45 Harvard Law Review 617 (February, 1932). Yes, 1932.

He uses “procedure” in a special sense, rather than its classification as found in the law school curriculum (p 647, fn 44). Also used in a special sense is “substantive law” which is the body of legal precedent that has been established and which has been accorded reverence because of its attributes and those recognised in the legal system, and by society, attaching to courts. Substantive law concerns principles, whereas procedure is entirely practical. Procedure is not tradition-bound but changes in the light of practical requirements. Whereas substantive law may be restated, procedure can be reformed. The difference is only in attitude, “any doctrine may be treated as procedure and the problem discussed, or as substantive law and the principle stated” (p 643).

Given these special definitions of substantive law and procedure it is plain that Arnold is not talking about what we would call substantive law and procedure. So, what is he saying?

His fear is that the multiplication of precedents through increased reporting of cases will reduce the law to confusion and chaos. The way to avoid this, he says, is to reduce access to appeals. The English did this, he further says, in criminal law by requiring that a miscarriage of justice had to be “substantial” before an appeal against conviction would be allowed. This was a barrier which discouraged appeals and minimised disruption to the established body of precedent. (p 638)

“It is this ability of the English to keep an ideal from too close contact with reality which explains the prestige which they are able to throw around their institutions.” (p 640)

He quotes, at p 639 fn 29, the then hot-off-the-press Goodhart, Essays in Jurisprudence and the Common Law (1931) at 57:

Perhaps the reason why the English Lawyer is not dissatisfied with the present system is that the 'myriad' precedents do not exist. The English cases to 1865 are reprinted in the English Reports in about 175 volumes. The semi-official Law Reports from 1865 to the present date occupy about 450 volumes. Thus 625 volumes make up a complete working library."

Wonderful times indeed, not that I personally remember them. But how different is it today?

The point is not the number of volumes in which the law can be printed, but the ease with which the law can be ascertained. It hardly matters how many millions of precedents there are, if the relevant ones can be obtained from an electronic database almost instantly. Present problems are around applying acquired legal skills to honing down electronic search results to bring into focus the cases that are truly relevant, and keeping those to a minimum. A concentration on cases that have been cited and discussed in recent decisions should assist this focusing process. So instead of having 625 volumes on the shelves, a practitioner need only have a few leading textbooks and a subscription to an appropriate electronic database.

But Arnold, if he were here today, might still be concerned about what is happening, behind the electronics, to the law itself. Is it becoming uncertain because of confusion arising from what is, in effect, the use of legal principles as if they were rules. Multiplication of exceptions and additions of refinements could be moving the fundamentals in a way which makes them less venerable and worthy of the reverence that has, he would say, attached to the law and the courts. Would it be practical to counter this by restricting arguments about the application of precedent to trial courts, and only allow cases that require discussion of principles to go to the appeal courts?

This points to the real question, whether there is something that needs to be countered. Has the digital revolution saved the law from the Arnold solution?