Another High Court disaster, coming up ?

Unsurprisingly, the rejection of Cardinal Pell’s appeal against his conviction for sexual abuse has led to the expectation that the case will go to the High Court. As far as I can tell, there are quite a few bad reasons for the High Court to take the case, but no good ones.

The bad reasons (all related to each other) are

  • Cardinal Pell is an important person
  • He is strongly backed by other important people
  • There is a lot of public interest in the case

What is missing is any legal issue raised by Pell’s conviction. The Appeal Court unanimously rejected suggestions that the trial judge made errors in his directions. The central remaining issue is whether the victim’s evidence was sufficiently credible to make it open to a jury to bring in a guilty verdict or whether the evidence of a defence witness, Portelli should be preferred.

Not having seen the evidence, I have no independent opinion. But the jury brought in a unanimous verdict, and two out of three Appeal court judges found that it was reasonable to do so. Is there any reason for the High Court judges, appointed primarily for their supposed expertise in constitutional law, to think they can do a better job of judging the case? If this appeal is heard, why not every criminal case where the Appeals Court produces a majority decision?

If the Court capitulates to political pressure by deciding to take the case, how will its verdict be viewed? An acquittal would certainly look like more of the same. Upholding the conviction would open them up to more attacks from the right. Then there’s the possibility of a split decision, unusual from this Court in high profile cases. That would really cause trouble.

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