Friday, December 13, 2019

All in the way you look at it

De Silva v The Queen [2019] HCA 48 (13 December 2019) is one of those cases in which, for an uninvolved reader, the dissenting judgment is just as persuasive as the majority’s. Not to worry, no doubt you had to be there.

In determining whether the judge’s directions to the jury had been wrong, the majority pointed to the absence at trial of any request for clarification of them from defence counsel (at [35]).

I can’t help wondering whether it is overly ambitious to place weight on counsel’s failure to point to a perceived error. Counsel, being well versed in the law, will tend to hear the judge say what the judge means to say, even if the judge hasn’t said it. When counsel knows what the judge means, it is very difficult to misunderstand what the judge says in the way that a jury may misunderstand it.

Only after the event, when there has been time for considered reflection on how misunderstandings may have arisen, might errors become apparent.

Still, the case has some useful general points. Nettle J (dissenting in the result) mentions the standard direction on beyond reasonable doubt (at [47]). The majority emphasise that directions to juries should not include unnecessary matters (here, whether a statement was made, when it was obvious from the recorded interview that the statement was made) [33], and a Liberato direction (in NZ we call this a tripartite direction [1]) can, depending on the issues and the conduct of the trial, be given even if the defendant’s version of events only comes into evidence via a statement given to the police [13].


[1] R v McI [1998] 1 NZLR 696 (CA) at 708, cited in R v MacDonald [2009] NZCA 428, (2009) 24 CRNZ 785 at [2], and Hazelwood v R [2013] NZCA 406 at [47].