The Supreme Court vs the Charter

Ever since Bongiorno J brought down his decision in Gray v DPP [2008] VSC 4, applying the Charter for the first time, I’ve been hanging out for the Supreme Court to consider the question again. Back then, I was deeply unimpressed with Bongiorno’s analysis. It appeared to ignore significant elements of the operative provisions of the Charter. In that respect, it was a sign of things to come. Not reading the Charter has been the hallmark of Charter cases this year.  To my surprise, the issue of bail did not speedily return to the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal. Newspaper reports revealed that Gray was applied in two later cases in the magistrates court. And then, nothing (published.) More recently, the VGSO seminar and an annual report revealed, with no apparent embarassment, that the magistrates courts simply stopped applying Gray. If true, that’s a surprising approach to precedent and sends a dire message about the significance of Charter precedents, even flawed ones.

Today, over ten months after Gray, the case has, at last, returned to the Supreme Court. In one respect, that’s an exciting development: the first time that the Supreme Court has been asked to apply an earlier Charter judgment setting out rights and an operative response. (The only other Charter judgment that’s been cited in the Supreme Court is R v Williams [2007] VSC 2, but that’s just an authority for not applying the Charter.) Alas, in other respects, Re Dickson [2008] VSC 516, is an appalling development, responding to Bongirono’s non-analysis of the Charter with some opposing non-analysis. The Victorian judiciary’s complete inability to do the slightest justice to a short, important statute is stunning, depressing and the entrenched norm.

George Dickson is, it seems, an even less appealing Charter rights claimant than the Charter’s first ever beneficiary, Kelly Gray:

Mr Dickson is charged with 25 counts of armed robbery and 4 counts of attempted armed robbery alleged to have been committed between August and November 2006. The offences apparently all involve armed robberies or attempted armed robberies on 24 hour convenience stores. These are serious offences involving a disguised offender using a knife. The offences involved the removal of, in some cases, tens of dollars and in other cases several hundreds of dollars. Mr Dickson has prior convictions for armed robbery in Victoria and Queensland….

On 3 April 2008 the applicant was sentenced in the County Court of Victoria for obtaining property by deception to 180 days’ imprisonment. On 23 April 2008, the parole on which he had been released in relation to earlier offences was cancelled. He has remained in custody and, as I understand it, has been serving pre-existing sentences and breached parole for a significant portion of the time since then. I am told that even if he were granted bail in this Court, he would not necessarily be released unless he was granted parole. It is by no means clear that would occur either.

But he has a number of things in his favour. First, he was charged on 20th March 2007, bringing him within the Charter’s stupid transitional provision. Second, the relevant bail provision at issue is the same one as was at issue in Gray (another alleged armed robber):

4(4) Where the accused person is charged-… (c) with an… offence in the course of committing which the accused person… is alleged to have used or threatened to use a firearm, offensive weapon, or explosive… the court shall refuse bail unless the accused person shows cause why his detention in custody is not justified

Third, thanks to the Crown’s decision to lead extensive similar fact evidence at his trial (thus blowing out the expected length of the hearing to three months and requiring a rescheduling), he will spend a minimum of two years and three months in prison awaiting his trial. Indeed, he has already spent a year-and-a-half, engaging the second and third limbs of this interesting right:

21(5) A person who is arrested or detained on a criminal charge- (a) must be promptly brought before a court; and (b) has the right to be brought to trial without unreasonable delay; and (c) must be released if paragraph (a) or (b) is not complied with.

Justice Lex Lasry had this to say about the question of whether or not the ‘delay’ was ‘unreasonable’:

The phrase “unreasonable delay” is not otherwise defined and nor would one expect to be. It must be regarded as descriptive given the particular circumstances. The section also appears to imply that for a delay to be “unreasonable” it would have occurred for reasons not attributable to the fault of the applicant. It was submitted on behalf of the applicant in this case that a total delay of two years and three months is unreasonable. That would be a difficult proposition to reject.

Who knows why the section ‘appears to imply’ that the delay musn’t be attributable to the applicant? Does it say that somewhere? But, anyway, it’s accepted that, in this case, the delay is attributable to the Crown (in belatedly seeking to adduce reams of similar fact evidence) and, perhaps, the County Court, which is notoriously suffering considerable delays. Anyway, Lasry’s finding that 21(5)(b) is satisfied is unequivocal. So, that means that Dickson has the right ‘to be released’. Right?

But, suddenly, Lasry decides to stop reading the Charter and instead goes about the task of distinguish Gray. Not, mind you, on the basis that Gray ignores the Charter’s operative provisions, but rather becuse the facts are different:

It is not submitted on behalf of the applicant before me that he will spend more time in custody than he is likely to serve upon a sentence particularly bearing in mind that his present custody involves revoked parole and is not simply pre-sentence detention. In Gray his Honour further concluded that the applicant was not a flight risk and there was little tangible evidence to suggest that the applicant would interfere with witnesses. Ultimately, his Honour concluded that the applicant had established that his continued incarceration was not justified and he was released on bail. What his Honour’s ruling demonstrates is that the Charter has a significant role to play in emphasising the importance of particular rights, but when it comes to the right to be brought to trial without unreasonable delay, that right remains to be considered within the appropriate or relevant provisions of the Bail Act.  I note at this point that in my opinion the circumstances confronting his Honour in Gray are quite different from those before me. First, in this case given the particular circumstances a significant amount of the applicant’s time in custody might not be reckoned as pre-sentence detention. Second, given Mr Dickson’s mental condition and its apparent connection with his offending, there is a risk that he might commit further offences if he were released. It is put by Mr Atkinson that there is also a risk of interference with witnesses although Mr Atkinson accepts that such a risk is more circumstantial than actual.

These are, indeed, all important differences. But they don’t change the fact that the terms of Charter s. 21(5) are engaged, including Charter s. 21(5)(c), one of the few uneqivocal rights to a remedy that appear in the Charter. Gray, by contrast, didn’t engage Charter s. 21(5)(c), as he had not, at the point of his Supreme Court application, been delayed too long. Instead, the only right he had engaged at that point was Charter s. 25(2)(c), which contains no remedy provision.

So, instead, the question is one of operative provisions. Here’s the argument made by Dickson’s counsel;

Mr Traczyk submitted on behalf of the applicant that the enactment of the Charter has brought about a significant change in the law in Victoria. Prior to the enactment of the Charter, it was submitted, there was no legal right to a speedy trial in Victoria. Mr Traczyk however submitted that s 21(5) of the Charter has clearly created a legal right to be brought to trial without unreasonable delay. It was further submitted that the Charter requires that the provisions of the Bail Act must be interpreted in such a way as to give full effect to this right. Indeed it was initially submitted, on behalf of the applicant, that where a person has been held in custody for a period of time which a court determines is unreasonable, that person should be released on bail, regardless of any other circumstances.

Now, that’s a far from perfect argument, as it appears to treat Charter rights as operative on their own and fails to note the caveats to the interpretation mandate. But, on the other hand, it clearly identifies the relevant operational provision being relied upon. Later, Traczyk makes a less extreme submission:

Mr Traczyk further submitted that even where an unacceptable risk has been shown, the overriding question in determining whether an individual should be released on bail in cases where delay is cited as exceptional circumstances or good cause is whether release on bail is required to give full effect to that individual’s right to be brought to trial without unreasonable delay.

That doesn’t seem to bad an argument. Moreover, Traczyk had a plan to manage any risk posed by Dickson:

It was submitted by Mr Traczyk that if I were inclined to release Mr Dickson on bail I could impose a condition in general terms that he not be released unless and until he was granted parole and that if that occurred, that within 48 hours of release, he report to the North Western Mental Hospital and from then on obey the lawful directions given to him at that institution. Mr Traczyk provided to the Court, on the applicant’s behalf, a letter addressed to the solicitors for the applicant and signed by Ms Elizabeth M. Williams, Psychiatric Nurse at North Western Mental Health. The letter, which is dated 21 November 2008, indicates that should Mr Dickson be granted bail, the clinic at Northern Hospital can offer a Case Management Intake Assessment to the applicant on Friday, 28 November 2008.

A potentially neat case-specific solution to s4(2)(d)’s ban on releasing people who pose an ‘unacceptable risk’. Indeed, there also seems to be an equal protection argument based on Dickson’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, which Lasry was concerned wouldn’t be effectively treated in jail. 

So, isn’t it time, at long last, for a Supreme Court judge to give serious consideration to the meaning and effect of Charter s. 32(1) Alas, no:

I cannot conclude that the Charter requires that the Bail Act be interpreted to allow for an accused to be released on bail, regardless of an established unacceptable risk, whether it be a risk of flight, re-offending, interference with witnesses or otherwise. Section 1(2) of the Charter provides, in relevant part: The main purpose of this Charter is to protect and promote human rights by— (a) setting out the human rights that Parliament specifically seeks to protect and promote; and (b) ensuring that all statutory provisions, whenever enacted, are interpreted so far as is possible in a way that is compatible with human rights; …  Section 1(2)(b) of the Charter requires that other statutory provisions be interpreted “so far as is possible” compatibly with human rights. The provisions of the Bail Act contain no reference to delay or to a right to a speedy trial. In this particular case, the Bail Act requires me to refuse bail unless the applicant shows cause why his detention in custody is not justified.

Charter s. 1???? What freaking planet is Lasry from? That’s the Charter’s purpose provision. It doesn’t have any operative effect. Here’s what the relevant operative provision says:

32(1) So far as it is possible to do so consistently with their purpose, all statutory provisions must be interpreted in a way that is compatible with human rights. (2) International law and the judgments of domestic, foreign and international courts and tribunals relevant to a human right may be considered in interpreting a statutory provision.

Now, granted, it so happens that Charter ss. 1(2)(b) and 32(1) are in pretty much the same terms. But whereas the former is an aspiration, the latter is a legal command. There’s a ‘must’. There’s also a clear reference to relevant comparative law. And there’s also a requirement that any interpretation be consistent with a provision’s purpose. Relying on Charter s. 1 is the kind of thing a (poor) undergraduate student (or Mirko Bagaric) would do.

Now, it’s clear that Lasry thought that the suggested interpretation went beyond what was ‘possible’ under the Bail Act, something Bongiorno failed to consider. Good for him.

But: (1) Lasry doesn’t explain why the Bail Act can’t possibly be interpreted in that way. What words stand in the way? And why? Overseas judgments have made it clear that the natural or settled meaning of words is no barrier. Some go so far as saying that the words themselves are no barrier. Lasry seems to see things otherwise. But why? (2) While, I certainly think it’s arguable that s4(2)(d), which bars bail for people who are an ‘unacceptable risk’, is pretty hard to get around, it’s less clear that the wording of s4(4)(c) is similarly unmalleable, so surely Lasry had to consider whether or not those words needed to be re-interpreted to permit release in a case of unreasonable delay? (3) Lasry neglects any consideration of the purpose of the Bail Act too, which might be a more sound reason to reject the argument put by Gray. (4) Also, if Lasry is right that the Bail Act ‘cannot be interpreted consistently with human rights’ then shouldn’t Lasry be mulling over the need for a declaration of inconsistent interpretation, which would of course require both notice and a consideration of Charter s. 7(2)? (5) I know this doesn’t seem to have been argued, but isn’t there also a conduct mandate issue too, in relation to the OPP and, perhaps, the County Court’s registry?This argument would face some hefty Charter s. 38(2) & 39(1) hurdles, of course, but the remedy of habeus corpus could be apt. (The fact that Dickson was confined on other charges would, of course, seem to be a barrier to them.) Alternatively, there’s the remedy of a stay, which seems to be the (controversial) Canadian approach.

[EDIT: And, (6) When I think about it, the specific reason for Dickson’s delayed trial – the Crown’s apparently belated decision to lead lots of similar fact evidence and the County Court’s willingness to adjourn to accomodate that – seems to carry lots of opportunities for a remedy for Dickson, although it may be too late now. Wouldn’t a better response have been to tell the Crown that if it wanted to move the trial date, it’d have to accept the bail of Dickson?]

Eh, why even bother listing all these things? They all assume that judges have even the slighest interest in what the Charter actually says. Believe it or not, Lasry actually delivered the Chancellor’s Human Rights Lecture at Melbourne University two days ago. I wasn’t there, but, to my amazement, his written speech doesn’t make any reference to the Charter at all. In that light, it’s not surprising that Lasry doesn’t seem to have even read the thing. (As I noted earlier, Lasry had an earlier opportunity to examine the operation of the Charter in delay cases and inexplicably failed to do so.)

Lasry, alas, shows no more interest in the operative provisions of the Charter than Bongiorno. Whereas Bongiorno simply acted on his (wrong) instinct that breaches of Charter rights always have remedies, Lasry acted on his (wrong) instinct that the Charter must always give way to existing legal regimes. Both judges completely fail to take the Charter seriously as a law, instead reducing it to some sort of lame set of aspirations:

There are, in my opinion, a number of matters that point to a refusal of bail and where that is the case, whilst it is appropriate to take the terms of the Charter into account and give full effect to the right referred to, that must be done against the scheme of the Bail Act and its relevant provisions. For the reasons I have already referred to, whilst the delay in the trial until June 2009 is most regrettable, in the particular circumstances of this case, the delay is significantly less prejudicial to the applicant than might normally be expected. I do not consider the provisions of the Charter materially affect the role of delay in this particular application.

While I’m glad he thinks that it’s ‘appropriate’ to take the terms of an applicable Victorian statute ‘into account’, there’s not the slightest sense in which Lasry has given ‘full effect’ to Charter s. 21(5)(c), much less to the many other provisions of the Charter. To say it again, Lasry’s clear finding that Dickson’s trial has been unreasonably delayed means that Dickson had a right to be released. That didn’t mean that Lasry had to order his release. But did mean that Lasry was obliged to give full consideration of the applicable operative provisions. Without such consideration, Lasry couldn’t know whether or not the Charter could materially affect Dickson’s application. Simply declaring that the Charter doesn’t apply is just as wrong as declaring tha the Bail Act doesn’t apply. 

To put the situation in milder terms than they merit, this genre of judgment is simply bullshit. Contrary to the blatherings of the anti-Charter mob, Victoria’s judiciary isn’t using the Charter to usurp the legislature. Rather, it is their non-use of the Charter that’s usurping the legislature. Nearly eleven months into the Charter’s full operation, there’s not the slightest evidence that most of Victoria’s judiciary has read the Charter or takes it even remotely seriously. Through either design or neglect, they are completley failing to apply the law of the land.

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