Uncollected thoughts on Zhang v R [2019] NZCA 507

Guidelines
Barbossa and (and I had to look this up) Jack JJ

Who doesn’t like guideline judgments?

I don’t like guideline judgments.  I mean, I do.  But what I like even more are the judgments of the Court of Appeal *after* a guideline judgment.  The ones where the Court says “pffft nice try, losers, but what we really meant was this”.  I’m looking forward to those.

The Court of Appeal doesn’t like guideline judgments either.  Zhang v R [2019] NZCA 507 is a judgment written with a pencil taped to the end of a bargepole.  It’s an exercise in pre-emptive dread, knowing that words intended to afford flexibility and discretion will begin to ossify the second they go beyond Molesworth Street.  Throughout the judgment there are reminders to readers that sound increasingly desperate.  Just because the Court is suggesting some numbers and bands doesn’t mean you can’t sentence outside them.  Just because they put a number on a percentage discount doesn’t mean it couldn’t go higher.  Just because we’re the Court of Appeal you don’t have to do what we say.  It won’t work.  Like a tragically hip relief teacher, attempts to get down with the youth in the District Court won’t work.  It’s axiomatic that a guideline judgment becomes axiomatic.  The rote learners of this world, which include nearly all criminal practitioners on both sides, will be saying in a few months time that you can get a 30% discount for addiction, and that this is a band three/lesser role which means a start point of X years, period.  What began as a “one size fits all” judgment will shrink in the wash to become simply “one size”.

That’s a pity, because the judgment itself is a work of art.  Do you like signposting in writing?  This is signposting central.  Every point neatly divvied up into four sub-points.  Every outstanding argument is promised to be returned to, and its return heralded two paragraphs later.  I can’t remember the last time I was able to read a hundred page judgment in one sitting.  Even my meme-addled brain with a concentration span of approximately two seconds could follow along.  More of this please.  You’ll have got the vibe of the decision from the media release.  R v Fatu‘s bands are retained with adjustments.  There’s now a band five because band four was catching too many people.  Role can influence starting point, but not as much as pretty much every intervener wanted.  Personal mitigating factors are back on the table for serious drug offending (more, as Downs J would say, about this later).  And they’re back in a big way.  Around 30% is on offer for addiction, if you can prove it.  Add another 25% for guilty plea and the sentencing discounts on offer begin to look like they’re being offered by the Briscoes lady.

The High Court doesn’t normally like guideline judgments but they’re not allowed to say that out loud.  They might like this one given that it seems a paean to sentencing discretion.  On Friday when my matter got bumped from the chambers list without warning, I wandered into the neighbouring courtroom and watched what might have been the first post-Zhang first instance sentencing – a case called R v Cutler [2019] NZHC 2737 (promptly whacked up on Decisions of Public Interest).  It all seemed to work well enough.  Ten kilos of meth in an importation and distribution ring gets you approximately a seven year end sentence.  That would quite simply not have happened under Fatu.

Prosecutors don’t like guideline judgments too.  Perhaps that’s not meant to be said out loud either – this sense that somehow it’s cheating when the rules have been changed and people can get credit for things they didn’t used to get credit for.  I don’t know.  God forbid we’re churlish about a level playing field.  But it’s a case of worst instincts revealed sometimes. And it’s interesting to watch those thoughts being processed.  Maybe more on that at another time.

Anyway, I tell you who liked this guideline judgment: Brewer and Moore JJ.  Both of them are referred to as “very experienced criminal judges” (at [107] and [108]).

For my next trick, this Supreme Court precedent will disappear

The part of the judgment that stands as a triumph of the art of judgery is the section consisting of paragraphs [133]-[136].  The paragraphs are too long to reproduce in full here but they revolutionise/normalise class A drug sentencing by saying that personal mitigating factors can be awarded just as much in drug sentencing cases as any other case.  For my money that’s the most important way the judgment lowers sentences for meth offending.  Forget starting point; the Court just tinkered with the numbers and let you drop down a band if your role was a bit bystandery.  The real movement is giving you tens of percent sentence discounts for personal factors in drug offending.  The judgment in particular focused on large discounts for addiction, for mental health, and for social deprivation as part of its general freeing-up of personal mitigating factors in drug offending.  It could only do that by explaining how personal mitigating factors could sound strongly in drugs cases, when they previously never did.  Watch this.

In the past, you only got an exceedingly small discount for personal factors.  That was because of a consistent attitude by the Courts which culminated in a Supreme Court case called Jarden v R [2008] NZSC 69, [2008] 3 NZLR 612.  The Court of Appeal noted that in Jarden the Supreme Court had said this (at [12] of Jarden):

As the Courts have repeatedly said, and as we emphasise again, in sentencing those convicted of dealing commercially in controlled drugs the personal circumstances of the offender must be subordinated to the importance of deterrence.

The Court of Appeal had a bit to say about deterrence elsewhere, but that’s for another day.  Here’s what the Court in Zhang had to say about Jarden:

[133] First, given the outcome in Jarden, we do not apprehend the Supreme Court to
have used “subordinated” in any sense implying exclusion of consideration of personal circumstances. Rather, such circumstances are to be weighed in the balance with the needs of deterrence, denunciation, accountability and public protection…

[135] Thirdly, we think considerable caution must be exercised in the expression of broad principles which may diminish the inherently discretionary weighting of aggravating and mitigating factors in stage two of the sentencing exercise. Indeed, it is a qualified discretion in any event. Section 9(2) of the Sentencing Act requires the court to take into account certain mitigating factors to the extent they are applicable to the particular case. Section 9(3) makes clear the list in s 9(2) is non-exclusive. Section 8(g) requires the court to impose the least restrictive outcome appropriate in the circumstances. Importantly, s 8(h) requires the court to take into account any particular circumstances of the offender that mean the sentence would be disproportionately severe. None of these provisions are expressed by Parliament as being inapplicable, or less applicable, in certain classes of crime.

It’s a two-pronged attack.  First, in the finest traditions of intermediate appellate courts everywhere the Court settled on the old “we don’t think that’s what the Supreme Court meant” trick.  That’s great as long as no one calls you on it, but that is 100% what the Supreme Court meant.  If you keep reading past the “subordinated” line in Jarden the Supreme Court makes clear you can take all these other factors into account (no fettering here), it’s just the weight that they will be afforded will be minimal.  Even in Mr Jarden’s case where there were “extreme” personal circumstances “[t]he crucial importance of deterrence requires however that the reduction in sentence be a modest one” (at [14]).

And second, to the extent the Court of Appeal needs to escape Supreme Court precedent (which they should!) the Court just goes one level higher still to Parliament.  Using the shield of Parliamentary sovereignty the Court deploys provisions of the Sentencing Act 2002 to call into doubt the Supreme Court’s observation in Jarden.  Again, fine, until you remember that the Supreme Court considered those same statutory provisions in Jarden and came to a different conclusion, by which the Court of Appeal is bound.

After that, hey presto, the Court of Appeal can say:

[136] It follows that we consider that personal mitigating circumstances relating to the offender, at stage two of the sentencing exercise, are applicable to all instances of Class A drug offending, as in any other offending.

And for just five easy payments of $19.95 I can teach you to do the same.

The result is that flexible approach to stare decisis that I fear might be becoming my thing that I complain about all the time.  The idea that, well, if you asked the Supreme Court today about Jarden they would probably say the same thing as the Court of Appeal did in Zhang, so why bother them with it.  I guess all I’m saying is that the hierarchy of courts isn’t the same thing as asking your parents if you can borrow their car.

Still, don’t mistake what I say.  Zhang v R is a Good Decision™.  It means more compassionate, rehabilitative sentences for those addicted.  It retains stern sentences for commercial meth importations.  It removes strange distinctions for class A drug offending that looked weird a long time ago.  It expressly mentions social and cultural deprivation as a personal mitigating factor.  It’s good that we get some common-sense liberalism from those notorious lefties in the *checks notes* Court of Appeal.  See you out there in this brave new world.

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