Thursday, December 22, 2011

Extended secondary liability: assessing the risk

"Where 2 or more persons form a common intention to prosecute any unlawful purpose, and to assist each other therein, each of them is a party to every offence committed by any one of them in the prosecution of the common purpose if the commission of that offence was known to be a probable consequence of the prosecution of the common purpose."

So says s 66(2) of the Crimes Act 1961 [NZ], defining extended secondary participation in offending. The contentious phrase has been "a probable consequence", giving rise to arguments about whether a common intention to use one form of violence, for example, made the use of another more serious form a probable consequence. In turn this led to arguments that use of a knife was not a probable consequence of the use of, say, a common intention to use a baseball bat, or that use of a gun was not a probable consequence of, say, a common intention to use of a knife.

In Edmonds v R [2011] NZSC 159 (20 December 2011) the Supreme Court rejected continued development of this line of case law and directed a return to the words of the statute. 

Of course the same issues will continue to arise: was the common intention one which had the probable consequence of the commission of the offence in question? In violent offences the sort of weapon actually used will usually be relevant, but in a way that is directed to the probability of its being used as assessed from the point of view of the defendant who had the original purpose in common with the principal offender.

"[47] The  approach  of  New  Zealand  courts  to  common  purpose  liability  must  be firmly  based  on  the  wording  of  s  66(2).   That  section  recognises  only  one  relevant level of risk, which is the probability of the offence in issue being committed.  If the level  of risk  recognised  by  the  secondary  party  is  at  that  standard,  it  cannot  matter that the actual level of risk was greater than was recognised.  It follows that there can be  no  stand alone  legal  requirement  that  common  purpose  liability  depends  on  the party’s knowledge that one or more members of  his or her  group were  armed or, if so, with what weapons.  As well, given the wording of s 66(2), there is no scope for a liability  test  which  rests  on  concepts  of  fundamental  difference  associated  with  the level  of  danger recognised  by  the  party.    All  that  is  necessary  is  that  the  level  of appreciated risk meets the s 66(2) standard."

From this it is clear, or at least so it seems to me, that (i) the risk recognised by the secondary party is the risk he actually perceived, not the risk he ought to have perceived, (ii) if the secondary party perceives the risk as a "probable consequence" that is sufficient for his liability, (iii) the secondary party may recognise that risk without knowing that the principal party has a weapon, (iv) there are no gradations of the culpable risk - either the preceived risk is of a "probable consequence" or it isn't.

It follows that evidence of the alleged secondary party's knowledge of the possession of a weapon of a different kind from that actually used is relevant not as itself a criterion for liability but rather as material to whether those criteria are met.

This approach to extended secondary liability will apply by analogy to all offences, not just those involving violence. The central issue is whether the alleged secondary party had what amounted to a belief that commission of the actual offence was a probable consequence of the common intention to commit the originally intended offence. It will not be necessary to prove that the alleged secondary party knew that the principal had the means to commit the actual offence, but if he did know that the means existed that would be relevant to assessing whether he had the necessary perception of probable consequence.

As the Court points out (49), it is for the prosecutor to say what the alleged common intention was. The closer the commonly intended offence was to the commission of the offence that was actually committed, the easier it should be to prove that the latter was a probable consequence of commission of the former.

This decision puts extended secondary liability back on the statutory track, away from which the case law had allowed it to drift. However the role of the phrase "in the prosecution of the common purpose" in s 66(2) could still give rise to debate. In committing the offence for which extended secondary liability is contended, did the principal offender go outside - and bring to an end - the prosecution of the common purpose? Had commission of the commonly intended offence been abandoned? This sort of issue is not likely to arise in cases of violence, where the use of force can be seen as a continuum with the commonly intended offence merging with the one for which extended liability is in question. While Edmonds deals with an aspect of extended secondary liability, other problems in applying s 66(2) will need to be addressed.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fair trials without central witnesses

It is possible for a trial to be fair without a central witness giving evidence in person and being cross-examined. The witness's evidence may be read at trial but the fact-finder may still have adequate means of testing the reliability of that evidence.

A fair trial is one where the law is accurately applied to facts that are determined impartially. Impartiality can exist when an unbiased fact-finder uses adequate means to assess the reliability and weight of the evidence.

It might be that there are corroborative witnesses who do give evidence and who can be cross-examined. There might also be a similarity between the evidence of independent complainants that is so unlikely to be coincidence that their mutual reliability is virtually assured. In such cases, where the defence can cross-examine the witnesses who support the absent witness, there may be found to be sufficient factors to counter-balance the absence of the central witness so that the defendant is not deprived of a fair trial.

But in other cases the absence of the central witness may not be counter-balanced. There may be no corroborative oral testimony. There may be no evidence that the defence could call to contradict the absent witness. In such cases the fact-finder may be unable to impartially assess the reliability of the absent witness, there being no one for the defence to cross-examine on the central issues.

The rule against hearsay, the exceptions to that rule, and the rule excluding evidence when its probative value is outweighed by the risk of improper prejudice to the defence, are the means by which the common law has endeavoured to ensure the fairness of trials when witnesses are not available for cross-examination. Often these rules have become statutory.

Over the last few years a storm gathered in Europe over this. The European Court of Human Rights had developed a rule that a conviction could not be based on the evidence of a witness who could not be cross-examined if the evidence of that witness was central to the prosecution case in the sense of being the sole evidence against the defendant or of being decisive evidence against him: Unterpertinger v Austria judgment, 24 November 1986, § 33, Series A no. 110. The UK Supreme Court criticised this rule in R v Horncastle [2009] UKSC 14 (noted here as an update to the entry on Al-Khawaja and Tahery v R [2009] ECHR 110, 27 January 2009), and only the most obtuse reader would fail to see that if the Grand Chamber did not allow the UK courts to continue to apply the discretionary approach rather than the Strasbourg rule, continued participation of the UK in European criminal law would be unlikely.

So inevitably Strasbourg yielded and departed from its rule. On appeal from the Chamber decision in Al-Khawaja and Tahery, the Grand Chamber held 15-2 that the rule did not apply where the law of a State contained sufficient safeguards: [2011] ECHR 2127 (15 December 2011).

The majority held that the underlying principle is that the defendant in a criminal trial should have an effective opportunity to challenge the evidence against him (127). The question was whether there were sufficient safeguards to secure the defendant's right to a fair trial (130).

"Also, in cases concerning the withholding of evidence from the defence in order to protect police sources, the Court has left it to the domestic courts to decide whether the rights of the defence should cede to the public interest and has confined itself to verifying whether the procedures followed by the judicial authorities sufficiently counterbalance the limitations on the defence with appropriate safeguards. The fact that certain evidence was not made available to the defence was not considered automatically to lead to a violation of Article 6 § 1 (see, for example,Rowe and Davis v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 28901/95, ECHR 2000 II). Similarly, in the case of Salduz, cited above, § 50, the Court reiterated that the right to legal assistance, set out in Article 6 § 3 (c) was one element, amongst others, of the concept of a fair trial in criminal proceedings contained in Article 6 § 1."
"While we understand the nature of the challenges faced by the prosecution when key witnesses die or refuse to appear at trial out of genuine fear, the protections guaranteed by Article 6 speak only to the rights of the defence, not to the plight of witnesses or the prosecution. The task of this Court is to protect the accused precisely when the Government limit rights under the Convention in order to bolster the State’s own position at trial. Counterbalancing procedures may, when strictly necessary, allow the Government flexibility in satisfying the demands of Article 6 § 3 (d). Our evolving application of the sole or decisive test, however, shows that this exception to the general requirement of confrontation is not itself without limits in principle. In the end, it is the job of the Government to support their case with non-hearsay corroborating evidence. Failure to do so leaves the Government open to serious questions about the adequacy of their procedures and violates the State’s obligations under Article 6 § 1 in conjunction with Article 6 § 3 (d)."

And their concluding quotation was from a New Zealand case, R v Hughes [1986] 2 NZLR 129 (CA) at 148-149:

"We would be on a slippery slope as a society if on a supposed balancing of the interests of the State against those of the individual accused the Courts were by judicial rule to allow limitations on the defence in raising matters properly relevant to an issue in the trial. Today the claim is that the name of the witness need not be given: tomorrow, and by the same logic, it will be that the risk of physical identification of the witness must be eliminated in the interests of justice in the detection and prosecution of crime, either by allowing the witness to testify with anonymity, for example from behind a screen, in which case his demeanour could not be observed, or by removing the accused from the Court, or both. The right to confront an adverse witness is basic to any civilised notion of a fair trial. That must include the right for the defence to ascertain the true identity of an accuser where questions of credibility are in issue."

Although statute has permitted the limitation of the right of a defendant to know the identity of a witness in certain limited circumstances, the right to a fair trial remains absolute in New Zealand, as no doubt it does in the United Kingdom.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Beyond the bounds of legal pragmatism

When an orthodox application of the criteria for criminal responsibility does not meet the requirements of public policy, the law must change. When it is left to judges to make the change, existing institutions or concepts are likely to be adapted to meet social requirements.

In R v Gnango [2011] UKSC 59 (14 December 2011) Lord Kerr dissented in his orthodox application of the principles of party liability. He held that neither primary liability as principal offender nor secondary liability either as an aider, abettor, counsellor or procurer, or by reason of extended secondary liability (the sort of common enterprise-gone-wrong that in this case all judges agreed to call parasitic accessory liability) applied to the facts.

The facts were simple and are found in the statement of the question of law that arose in this case:
"If (1) D1 and D2 voluntarily engage in fighting each other, each intending to kill or cause grievous bodily harm to the other and each foreseeing that the other has the reciprocal intention, and if (2) D1 mistakenly kills V in the course of the fight, in what circumstances, if any, is D2 guilty of the offence of murdering V?"
It was a gunfight. There was no room for extended secondary liability here because any agreement that D2 may have had with D1 could not sensibly include agreement that D1 should shoot at him.

So D2 could only be guilty if he was a principal or if he aided, abetted, counselled or procured D1 in the killing of V who was an innocent by-stander. It should be obvious that he was not a principal, as he did not actually commit the murder himself. This was not obvious to Lords Brown and Clarke, and neither but to a lesser extent to Lords Phillips, Judge and Wilson. But they were engaged in extending the law for policy reasons.

The difficulty with orthodox secondary liability was that in this case the jury had not been invited to consider whether there was an agreement that D2 would be shot at, so even if this absurd possibility were a potential basis for liability it was not relevant to this appeal.

D2 could not have aided (etc) D1 in the killing of V unless he had helped (etc) by agreeing to be shot at.

Lord Kerr was correct in orthodox terms to conclude that there was no basis in the circumstances of this appeal to hold D2 liable for the murder of V.

That conclusion was not good enough for the other judges.

Lord Phillips and Lord Judge, with Lord Wilson agreeing, took the extremely pragmatic approach of saying it doesn't matter whether D2 was a principal or a secondary party, he and D1 both acted dangerously in a public place and each should be held accountable for V's death. Either could have killed someone and it was just fortuitous that the person who fired the fatal shot was D1. These judges, and Lord Dyson, preferred the secondary liability route to responsibility but they agreed with Lords Brown and Clarke that principal liability could also be used as the basis for liability.

Nor does the jury have to agree on the basis for liability: it is the conclusion as to guilt that requires agreement, not the route to that conclusion (63).

Well, you can't just pluck someone out of an unruly mob and say this person could easliy have been the one who caused the relevant harm so he should be held responsible for it even if it is known that he didn't actually do it himself. Nor can you pretend that he intentionally assisted or encouraged the commission of an offence when there is no evidence he meant to help or encourage its commission. Yes, the law must further the interests of the community, but there must be a rational, formalist, basis for attributing responsibility for crime. Otherwise we will have a society in which judges can simply say we shouldn't let this person off so we will hold him liable.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The strength of vagueness

Two vague but fundamental concepts

The first vague concept: abuse of process

Complicity by Australian officials in the unlawful deportation of the defendant (appellant) to Australia led to subsequent criminal proceedings against the defendant in Australia being stayed as an abuse of process in Moti v R [2011] HCA 50 (7 December 2011).

Abuse of process is open-ended, not to be confined to rigid categories of official misconduct (60):

" ... the forms of expression adopted in the decided cases must be understood in the context of the particular facts of each case. None should be read as attempting to chart the boundaries of abuse of process. None should be read as attempting to define exhaustively the circumstances of removal of an accused to this country that warrant exercise of the power to stay criminal proceedings against that person or as giving some exhaustive dictionary of words by one or more of which executive action must be described before proceedings should be stayed. None should be read as confining attention to whether any act of an Australian Government official constituted participation in criminal wrongdoing, whether as an aider and abettor or as someone knowingly concerned in the wrongdoing. And the use of words like "connivance", "collusion" and "participation" should not be permitted to confine attention in that way. All should be understood as proceeding from recognition of the basic proposition that the end of criminal prosecution does not justify the adoption of any and every means for securing the presence of the accused. And in this case, as in others, the focus of attention must fall upon what Australian officials did or did not do."

Recognition of abuse of process is a response to the policy of even-handed justice and the maintenance of public confidence in judicial process.

"57. ... two fundamental policy considerations affect abuse of process in criminal proceedings. First, "the public interest in the administration of justice requires that the court protect its ability to function as a court of law by ensuring that its processes are used fairly by State and citizen alike" [Williams v Spautz [1992] HCA 34; (1992) 174 CLR 509 at 520]. Second, "unless the court protects its ability so to function in that way, its failure will lead to an erosion of public confidence by reason of concern that the court's processes may lend themselves to oppression and injustice" [[1992] HCA 34; (1992) 174 CLR 509 at 520]. Public confidence in this context refers to the trust reposed constitutionally in the courts to protect the integrity and fairness of their processes. The concept of abuse of process extends to a use of the courts' processes in a way that is inconsistent with those fundamental requirements."
Here the official misconduct was in summary (63):

"...First, Australian officials (both in Honiara and in Canberra) knew that the senior representative of Australia in Honiara at the time (the Acting High Commissioner) was of opinion that the appellant's deportation was not lawful. Second, the Acting High Commissioner's opinion was obviously right. Third, despite the expression of this opinion, and its obviously being right, Australian officials facilitated the unlawful deportation of the appellant by supplying a travel document relating to him (and travel documents for those who would accompany him) at a time when it was known that the documents would be used to effect the unlawful deportation. That is, Australian officials supplied the relevant documents in time to be used, with knowledge that they would be used, to deport the appellant before the time for deporting him had arrived."
The majority, French CJ, Gummow, Hayne, Crennan, Kiefel and Bell JJ, held that proceedings on the indictment should be permanently stayed.

Heydon J delivered an interesting dissent, focused on difficulties arising from the vague concepts concerning abuse of process and its lack of definition. Among the points he makes is the availability of alternative, disciplinary, responses to official misconduct instead of giving a person who may be guilty of serious offending immunity from conviction.

There are also some observations in this case on payment of prosecution witnesses, which was another ground of this appeal but which did not need to be considered in detail as no impropriety in that regard was held, unanimously, to have occurred.

The second vague concept: miscarriage of justice

In Handlen v R; Paddison v R [2011] HCA 51 (8 December 2011) the High Court held that the proviso could not be applied where a trial had proceeded on a mistaken appreciation of how participation in the offending could be proved. The requirements for secondary liability, namely that each appellant had intentionally aided, abetted, incited, counselled or procured the commission of the offence, should have been applied. (An alternative form of secondary liability was not relevant in this case.) But the trial proceeded wrongly on the basis that proof of membership of a joint criminal enterprise would be sufficient if commission of the relevant offence was part of that enterprise. The error is that not every member of such an enterprise is necessarily a party to every offence committed by members of the enterprise. This was overlooked by all counsel and by the trial judge. The Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Queensland had recognised the error but had applied the proviso because it was satisfied that the appellants were guilty, and there had not been a departure from the fundamental requirement of a trial according to law.

"47. As this Court explained in Weiss v The Queen, there is no single universally applicable description of what constitutes a "substantial miscarriage of justice" [[2005] HCA 81; (2005) 224 CLR 300 at 317]. The appellants were convicted of serious criminal offences ... following a trial at which the prosecution case was conducted, and left to the jury, on a basis for which the law did not provide. The conduct of the trial on this basis conferred an evidentiary advantage on the prosecution, leading to the admission of evidence to prove the existence and scope of the group exercise. Ultimately, the issue posed for the jury was whether the prosecution had proved that the appellants were parties to the group exercise when this was irrelevant to proof of their complicity in Reed's offences. The verdicts on the importation counts reflect the jury's satisfaction that each appellant was a party to the group exercise but it does not follow that the jury must have been satisfied of the facts necessary to establish the appellants' guilt of the importation offences in the only way for which the law allowed. It was not open to the Court of Appeal to apply the proviso in the circumstances of these appeals."

The majority ordered a new trial, Heydon J dissented and would have dismissed the appeals. He analysed the evidence and found guilt proved regardless of how the trial had been conducted. He did not see the defects as fundamental. For the majority, regardless of the strength of the evidence the trial had been such a departure from what was in accordance with the law that, in effect, the right to a fair trial was the dominant consideration.


Vague concepts can still be useful in the law. Reasonableness, fairness, interests of justice, the public interest, the weighing of values underlying rights, do not need to be defined as if they were mathematical concepts. Numbers too, when used in measurements, involve margins of error and require probabilistic reasoning. These areas of vagueness are opportunities for the exercise of judgment. Complaints about vagueness are like the formalists' complaints about pragmatism.

An unruly heckler at the back of the room might cry out that Heydon J had, in the first of these appeals, been too much the formalist, while in the second he had been too much the pragmatist.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Equality before the law, parity of sentence

Some general points on disparity of sentence can be gleaned from Green v R; Quinn v R [2011] HCA 49 (6 December 2011). The case needs to be read in its statutory context which includes a constraint on prosecution appeals against sentence. But aside from that,
  • An appeal by an offender on the basis that his sentence was excessive by comparison to that imposed on a co-offender may be allowed to avoid disparity, even if the result is an inadequate sentence, as long as the result is not an affront to the administration of justice (French CJ, Crennan and Kiefel JJ at 33).
  • A prosecution appeal against sentences imposed on some co-offenders should not give rise to a disparity with more lenient but un-appealed sentences imposed on other co-offenders (French CJ, Crennan and Kiefel JJ at 37).
  • An appeal court should not introduce procedural unfairness by basing its judgment on a perceived defect in the decision of the court below when on the hearing of the appeal the defect was not mentioned and was not the subject of argument (French CJ, Crennan and Kiefel JJ at 76, 80).
  • Intermediate courts of appeal should only overrule their own decisions infrequently and in exceptional circumstances, when the earlier decisions are manifestly wrong and not based on principle worked out in clear lines of useful authority (Heydon J dissenting in the result).
  • Parity must not be conflated with proportionality, because the starting point is the appropriate sentence for the particular offence. Different offending may justify different sentences which should not be criticised as being disparate (Bell J dissenting, Heydon J agreeing, at 125).
    Prosecution appeals may not be allowed if the result would be disruption to rehabilitation, as the benefit of guidance to other courts may come at too high a cost in terms of justice to the individual (French CJ, Crennan and Kiefel JJ at 43).