Protections from statutory encroachment

Australian Constitution

11.19   The Australian Constitution does not expressly protect the principle that the burden of proof in a criminal trial should be borne by the prosecution. There is a long history of Commonwealth laws which reversed the traditional onus of proof but were held not to contravene Ch III of the Constitution.[27]

11.20   But in Nicholas v The Queen,[28] the High Court reserved its position regarding the validity of a law which deemed to exist and to have been proved to the satisfaction of the tribunal of fact, any ultimate fact which is an element of the offence charged. In particular, as French CJ explained in International Finance Trust Company Ltd v New South Wales Crime Commission,[29] the Parliament cannot direct courts exercising federal jurisdiction as to the outcome of the exercise of that jurisdiction. Further, in International Finance, this principle was applied by French CJ, Gummow, Heydon, and Bell JJ, as an aspect of the Kable doctrine,[30] to the exercise of non-federal jurisdiction.

11.21   In Carr v Western Australia, Kirby J spoke about an ‘important feature of the Australian criminal justice system’:

Trials of serious crimes, such as the present, are accusatorial in character. Valid legislation apart, it is usually essential to the proper conduct of a criminal trial that the prosecution prove the guilt of the accused and do so by admissible evidence. Ordinarily the accused does not need to prove his or her innocence.[31]

11.22   Kirby J said that this feature of the criminal justice system is ‘not always understood’, yet ‘it is deeply embedded in the procedures of criminal justice in Australia, inherited from England. It may even be implied in the assumption about fair trial in the federal Constitution’.[32] The right to a fair trial is considered in detail in Chapter 10.

Principle of legality

11.23   The principle of legality provides some protection for the principle that the prosecution should bear the burden of proof in criminal proceedings.[33] In Momcilovic v The Queen, French CJ held that:

The principle of legality will afford … [the presumption of innocence] such protection, in the interpretation of statutes which may affect it, as the language of the statute will allow. A statute, which on one construction would encroach upon the presumption of innocence, is to be construed, if an alternative construction be available, so as to avoid or mitigate that encroachment. On that basis, a statute which could be construed as imposing either a legal burden or an evidential burden upon an accused person in criminal proceedings will ordinarily be construed as imposing the evidential burden.[34]

The principle of legality at common law would require that a statutory provision affecting the presumption of innocence be construed, so far as the language of the provision allows, to minimise or avoid the displacement of the presumption.

11.24   However, the principle cannot be used to override the clear and unequivocal language of a section. It does not ‘constrain legislative power’.[35]

11.25   Momcilovic concerned the construction of s 5 of the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981 (Vic), which deems a person to be in possession of a substance based upon occupancy of premises in which drugs are present, unless the person satisfies the court to the contrary. The question in Momcilovic was whether s 5 imposed a legal burden or an evidentiary burden on the defendant.

11.26   In Momcilovic, the High Court confirmed that the section placed a legal burden on the accused.[36] French CJ remarked that ‘[o]n their face the words of the section defeat any attempt by applying common law principles of interpretation to read down the legal burden thus created’.[37]

International law

11.27   The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects the presumption of innocence:

Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.[38]

11.28   The protection of the presumption of innocence is provided in the same terms in art 11(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[39] and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention).[40]

11.29   International instruments cannot be used to ‘override clear and valid provisions of Australian national law’.[41] However, where a statute is ambiguous, courts will generally favour a construction that accords with Australia’s international obligations.[42]

Bills of rights

11.30   In other countries, bills of rights or human rights statutes provide some protection to certain rights and freedoms.[43] The Fifth and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution guarantee a right not to be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law[44] and have been interpreted by the US Supreme Court as including a presumption of innocence.[45]

11.31   The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that any person charged with an offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty.[46] The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZ) contains a similar provision.[47]

11.32   In Australia, the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) and the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT) both provide that a person charged with a criminal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.[48]

11.33   The English common law has long stressed the ‘duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner’s guilt’[49]—indeed, this has been described as the ‘governing principle of English criminal law’.[50] Additionally, since its enactment, the Human Rights Act 1998 (UK) requires that, so far as it is possible, legislation must be read and given effect in a way that is compatible with European Convention rights—including the presumption of innocence in art 6(2).[51] It has been noted that this has ‘had a major impact on the law relating to the burden of proof’.[52]

Limits in bills of rights

11.34   Bills of rights allow for limits on most rights, but the limits must generally be reasonable, prescribed by law, and ‘demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society’.[53]