Thursday, October 27, 2011

Don't mention the elephant

Back in 1991, the High Court stated that:
in examining the evidence of a witness in a criminal trial – including the evidence of the accused – the jury is entitled to consider whether some particular interest or purpose of the witness will be served or promoted in giving evidence in the proceedings. But to direct a jury that they should evaluate evidence on the basis of the interest of witnesses in the outcome of the case is to strike at the notion of a fair trial for an accused person.
These two sentences seem to set down a proposition that while the jury are entitled to consider whether some interest of the accused would be served by giving the evidence he has (such as, you know, securing an acquittal), it is an error of law for the judge to tell the jury that. Yesterday, the High Court reiterated that prohibition.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The safety of taxis and the media beat-up

The Director of Public Transport has recently had his latest loss in the long-running battle to stop the anonymised XFJ from obtaining a taxi licence. The Court of Appeal handed down its decision last week and, like the two previous decisions, found that the Director could not use concerns over public confidence as a basis for refusing a taxi licence to a person who, 18 years ago, was found not guilty of murder due to insanity. The Court of Appeal has included a good summary of the history of the matter and its decision at the start of its judgment, which substantially reduces what I need to say about the case. My interest, instead, is on the media reaction to the decision.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Lessons from non-precedential appeals

I've blogged previously about the Court of Appeal's innovative use of catchwords to declare that a case raises no point of principle (see here and here). Recently, Ashley and Weinberg JJA released another batch of decisions with the "no point of principle" catchword. One of them, however, arguably does raise a (minor) point of principle and so raises the question of how later courts should treat it. In Harper v R [2011] VSCA 314, the offender was a Thai national who attempted to smuggle over 100g of heroin into Australia, concealed in body cavities. During the sentencing remarks, the judge stated:
By resorting to internal concealment of the drugs, you made detection of the offence even more difficult. This is an aggravating feature of your crime.
Although there was no ground of specific error, Ashley JA at [22] took the time to comment that:
Counsel for the Crown did not submit today that this was a correct statement of principle. In my opinion, it was not. It is at the heart of the particular offence that detection of the drugs will be made as difficult as possible. So to say does not mean that what I regard as a manifestly excessive sentence is to be explained by the judge’s particular observation. Rather, I take the opportunity to indicate my opinion that the observation was unsound.
Bearing in mind what the Court said in Ciantar & Rose, should judges give any weight to this statement, or should they treat it as wholly irrelevant? Is there a difference between a case that raises "no point of principle" and one that is "without precedent value"? Indeed, if there is a later case where a judge again treats the manner of concealment as an aggravating factor for importation, would the court reprimand counsel for referring to Harper in an argument that this constituted specific error? These are a couple of questions that are thrown up when, despite declaring that a case raises no point of principle, the court makes statements on important general issues, such as whether or not something is an aggravating factor.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Baseline sentencing and the High Court's implacable opposition to two-stage sentencing

The Sentencing Advisory Council currently has a reference from the Attorney-General regarding baseline sentences. The parameters of the government's idea of baseline sentences are spelt out in 5 bullet points:

  • Baseline sentences will apply for serious offences as defined in the Sentencing Act 1991 and for additional offences such as arson, recklessly causing serious injury, aggravated burglary and major drug trafficking.

  • Baseline sentences will provide the starting point for the court in determining the minimum sentence (i.e., non-parole period) to be imposed in cases where a baseline sentence applies, and will indicate the sentence that the parliament expects will be the median or mid-point of minimum sentences imposed for cases involving that offence.

  • In determining the non-parole period to be served by the offender, the court will be required to start from the baseline minimum sentence before applying aggravating or mitigating factors that would alter the non-parole period up or down from the baseline.

  • Where a baseline sentence applies, the appropriateness of a non-parole period is to be assessed on appeal primarily by reference to the applicable baseline sentence, rather than by reference to current sentencing practice.

  • The baseline sentencing regime is to operate so that, over time, the Court of Appeal will be able to determine whether or not the median levels of minimum sentences being handed down are in fact aligned with the baseline sentences specified by parliament and, if not, to require changes accordingly in sentencing practices.

  • Following yesterday's High Court decision in Muldrock v R [2011] HCA 39, one model the council presumably won't be looking to emulate is the New South Wales approach to standard non-parole periods.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011

    Special leave report: R v Getachew

    As Jeremy Gans mentioned in the comments to the previous post, the High Court has granted special leave to appeal Getachew v R. The transcript is available here. It is fascinating reading, starting with this exchange immediately after counsel make their appearances:
    HEYDON J: Mr Boyce, I think it might be convenient if we hear from you first.
    MR BOYCE: Thank you. Your Honours, it is submitted in this case that special leave should be refused because the applicant’s grounds have no point of principle worthy of a grant of special leave.
    HEYDON J: I agree with that, but it does seem an extraordinary judgment by the Court of Appeal.
    Chris Boyce did his best to defend the decision, stating that it was a natural extension of the principle from R v Worsnop and consistent with authority in Victoria, but Heydon and Bell JJ weren't convinced. Bell J also made some remarks that could cast doubt on the reasoning that underlie Worsnop, as she questioned whether an odd-on belief that a person is awake and hence consenting could rebut a mens rea of "aware that the person is not consenting or might not be consenting" (emphasis added). She did, however, qualify her remarks and indicated that they were not concerned with the correctness of Worsnop. Ultimately, the High Court granted special leave for the DPP to appeal the decision, without calling on the DPP to make any submissions.

    It looks like the Crown will be running two grounds on the appeal. The first concerned the need for s37AA and s37AAA directions at all in the circumstances, when the accused's defence is that he wasn't there, and hence consent or awareness of consent were not real issues. This invites the court to further explain Pemble and the opening words to s37AAA on when the direction is necessary. The second argument is that the judge's original direction was entirely correct. I've written about my views on the second point previously, here.

    In the circumstances, I'd think that the Court of Appeal would need to hold any further appeals that raise this issue in reserve until the High Court hands down its judgment, as otherwise there could be a long string of cases ordering retrials in circumstances where the High Court later decides that the reasoning underlying the decisions is erroneous. More difficult is to know what happens to Roberts and Neal, since they relate to the same point, but weren't the subject of the special leave application. The retrial in Neal can probably stand on its own feet, but Roberts is far more similar to Getachew and, if Getachew is overturned, that should logically take the retrial order in Roberts with it. Maybe the Crown will seek the join the matters later in some way?