Three law professors on Fisher v Binnie

December 20th, 2012 at 8:15 am by David Farrar

I called yesterday for more focus on the substance of the Bain issue – mainly whether or not Fisher’s criticisms of Binnie’s report are justified and substantial, and wanted to hear from legal experts rather than those with a vested interest.

Was pleased to have commenters discover or point out that no less than three law professors have actually commented publicly on this issue. And it appears they have all concluded that they agree with Fisher’s critique. Let’s go through them all.

First, there is this video on TVNZ with Otago University Law School Dean Mark Henaghan. Definitely worth viewing.

Then the ODT report:

Having read both reports, Prof Henaghan said a main issue of concern with Justice Binnie’s report was whether it relied on the onus of Mr Bain proving his innocence, rather than the Crown proving his guilt.

”In this case, it is not a criminal trial. If you are asking for compensation the onus is on you to prove you deserve it and that was one thing Robert Fisher was worried most about in respect of Justice Binnie’s report.”

He thought Dr Fisher’s recommendation to have a revised report drafted and opened for feedback from all involved was sensible, and anyone preparing such a report could at least benefit from Justice Binnie’s ”thorough” compiling of data.

Tapu Misa reported:

The Otago University law professor, Kevin Dawkins, told Radio New Zealand last week that he agreed with Robert Fisher’s criticism that Binnie failed to consider circumstantial evidence and the way we in New Zealand approach it.

Professor Dawkins said Binnie’s dismissal of individual pieces of evidence was problematic and “corroborates the Minister of Justice’s conclusion that the finding in the report is not supported by robust reasoning and analysis”.

He also agreed that Binnie incorrectly imposed the burden on the Crown to prove Bain wasn’t innocent, when the onus of proof should have lain with David Bain.

Also ZB reported Dawkins:

Otago University Law Professor Kevin Dawkins says there’s an ongoing concern in the Fisher review, that Justice Binnie was more inclined to believe David Bain’s version of events, than the Crown’s.

“I think there were parts of Justice Binnie’s report which indicate an inclination to find David Bain innocent on the balance of probabilities.”

Kevin Dawkins says Ian Binnie may have been confirmed in his view by the verdict of the jury in David Bain’s retrial, but that point isn’t relevant in this inquiry.

And finally we have Andrew Geddis. He has blogged extensively on this at Pundit. he is very critical of Judith Collins over not giving Bain’s camp a copy of Binnie’s report, and the way Fisher was commissioned. However he also gets into the substance of Fisher’s criticisms and his main conclusion:

I think Fisher’s core criticism of Binnie’s approach to the physical evidence is right.

And in detail:

But how and why Binnie thought this footprint evidence (put together with the timing issue, and the no blood in the shoe point) was stronger than the combinedevidence that pointed towards David Bain’s guilt we’ll never know – all we know is that he says he considered the matter and came to that conclusion.

And that is a problem, because it is only in the overall “thickness vs sharpness” analysis that you can reach an overall assessment on the balance of probabilities of whether David Bain is innocent. So I think Fisher is absolutely correct in this aspect of his criticisms: even if Binnie really did do what he says he did (and remember, an absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence), we needed to see him doing it in order to be fully satisfied about his conclusions.

So, yes – for all the problems that I have with the way Fisher’s review of Binnie’s report was commissioned and framed, Collins was right to conclude from it that Binnie’s report is not a safe basis for concluding that David Bain is innocent. Having read that report, and Fisher’s critique, and Binnie’s response, that is the conclusion I myself have come to.

So there seem to be three options going forward:

  1. Pay Bain compensation, despite the documented inadequacies of the Binnie report.
  2. Do not pay Bain compensation, on the basis that the Binnie report has failed to make the case that he is innocent.
  3. Ask someone to do another report on Bain’s likely innocence, and make a decision on compensation based on that.

I don’t think anyone expects (1) will occur. Nor should it occur.

I think (2) would be rather unfair to David Bain. It is not his fault that Binnie’s report was sub-standard. He shouldn’t lose his chance for compensation because of it.

So inevitable we need another report. As some have noted it can use as a starting point, the evidence collated by Binnie.

But who should do it? You have a double challenge. First to identify someone acceptable, and secondly to convince them to do it – considering the toxicity of the environment around this now.

Geddis blogged:

So maybe the only way through this is to give the job to more than one person. As my Boss at the Otago Law Faculty, Mark Heneghan, has suggested, “at least with a panel of judges they can reality-check each other and make sure they are not being influenced by one thing.” And as I make it a policy to never disagree with my boss, I’m going to suggest that this is a brilliant idea from a fair-minded, highly intelligent and devastatingly good-looking man.

The idea of a panel is not a bad one.  Maybe two NZ Judges or QCs who have had nothing to do with the case, and one Australian?

If you have a sole reviewer, and they reach a different conclusion to Binnie, then the Bain camp will criticise that as having hand picked a favourable reviewer. But if you have a panel, it is much harder to criticise it – and it worth recalling appellate benches are always panels.

Of course a reviewer or review panel may come to the same conclusion as Binnie – and that is fine, so long as their report correctly sets out why, and the tests they applied.

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