Court of Appeal finds woman should not have taken High Court action to change her plea before sentencing
A woman who pleaded guilty to leaving her four-year-old son with life-threatening injuries should not have taken a High Court action to change her plea before she was sentenced, the Court of Appeal has held.
The woman, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was charged along with a co-accused with serious assault, assault causing harm and cruelty to children after the child was admitted to hospital with internal bleeding and life-threatening injuries in July 2010. She initially pleaded not guilty, claiming her son suffered the injuries in a fall.
Just before the child was due to give evidence, the trial judge, Judge Thomas Teehan, commented that the pair could probably avoid prison if they pleaded guilty although his indications were “not absolutes”.
The following day, the woman pleaded guilty. However, three weeks later, she sought to change her plea on grounds that the trial judge’s comments “placed her in an unfair position which resulted in a plea that was not made in a free, independent and voluntary manner”. In refusing her application to change her plea, Judge Teehan noted that the woman had time to consider her decision and that she had the benefit of full legal advice from a solicitor and two counsel.
Some months later, the woman then successfully sought judicial review in the High Court, which quashed Judge Teehan’s order refusing her liberty to resile from her plea. The High Court held that, despite the broad discretion granted to a trial judge, his comments led directly to her plea of guilty and thus did not accord with an accused’s right to a fair trial.
The Director of Public Prosecutions successfully appealed the High Court’s decision yesterday on the central ground that the woman should not have brought a judicial review because the trial process had not yet concluded. Sentence had not been imposed so the criminal trial had not come to an end.
Giving judgment in the Court of Appeal, Mr Justice John Hedigan said the court of judicial review should almost never intervene in a criminal case that has not concluded. The bar was set “at the highest level”.
He said the High Court “regrettably” applied the incorrect test for judicial review. He said no fault was found by the High Court in the procedure that was followed in the Circuit Court “nor could there have been”. It was manifestly a fair process in the Circuit Court that afforded the woman every opportunity to make her case.
Mr Justice Hedigan said the appropriate course to take, after the woman’s application to change her plea had been refused, was to proceed to sentence. Once that part of the criminal process (sentencing) had ended, the woman could have then considered her option to appeal.
He said the Court of Appeal could examine the case from every angle, may examine all the evidence and ultimately apply a test to determine whether a person was given a fair trial. In the circumstances of this case, a court of appeal was not only the appropriate remedy but, also, the one most beneficial to a person such as the woman.
Finally, Mr Justice Hedigan said it was “to be deplored” that the case, involving a very young child as an alleged victim and as a witness, “should have been delayed as it has been by taking the wrong form of action”.
Following her plea of guilty, he said the woman delayed some three weeks before notifying a desire to change her plea. Having failed in that application, she then waited two and a half months before seeking leave for a judicial review.
Mr Justice Hedigan said he could consider allowing the DPP’s appeal on the basis that the woman failed to promptly apply for judicial review. Instead, he allowed the appeal on the point he found central; that the woman “acted prematurely in seeking judicial review of a decision made in the course of a criminal trial that had not concluded”. In doing so, “she failed to avail of the appropriate alternative remedy”.
Mr Justice John Edwards and Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy concurred with Mr Justice Hedigan’s decision.
Ruaidhrí Giblin, Ireland International News Agency Ltd.