Hearsay and ‘second-hand’ admissions


The hearsay rule prevents an out of court assertion from being led in court to prove the truth of that assertion. Admissions against interest are a well-established exception to the rule against hearsay. So for example, consider a situation in which an accused person (A) tells their friend (B), out of court, that they (A) stole a car. At A’s trial for stealing the car, witness B may give evidence that A made that admission to B. Pursuant to the admissions exception, B’s evidence can be used for its truth: to prove that A not only made the admission, but also to prove the truth of what A said… that is, that A stole the car.

Admissions might be express (as in the example above) or implied (eg, through A failing to deny an allegation B makes against them in circumstances where A’s denial would be expected if the allegation were untrue).

In TWR v The State of Western Australia [2022] WASCA 24, the Court of Appeal considered the admissibility of evidence from the complainant’s mother about messages sent to her by the appellant’s wife, which were said at trial to constitute implied admissions by the appellant.

TWR v The State of Western Australia [2022] WASCA 24:

In the District Court, the appellant was tried by jury and subsequently convicted of four counts of sexually penetrating a child under the age of 13 years and three counts of indecently dealing with a child under the age of 13 years. At trial, the prosecution adduced evidence of WhatsApp messages exchanged between the complainant’s mother and the appellant’s wife. This evidence was adduced through the complainant’s mother (at [6]). In that message exchange, the complainant’s mother accused the appellant of ‘sexual advances’ which included ‘inappropriate touching and more horrific gestures’ against the complainant. The appellant’s wife indicated in her responses that she had spoken with her husband, and that he promised he would stay away from the complainant and her mother at all times.

As put by the Court of Appeal:

The prosecutor relied on these text messages as constituting implied admissions by the appellant, made through his wife, that he had engaged in sexual conduct with the complainant. The implied admission was said to arise from the absence of a denial of the offending and failure of the appellant to ask for details of the allegations. The trial judge gave the jury detailed directions about the circumstances in which they could use the text messages as an implied admission of guilt.‘ (at [11])

One ground of appeal contended that the trial judge erred by allowing the messages to be used as an implied admission by the appellant. This ground was conceded by the State at the appeal.

In essence, the Court of Appeal noted that the admissions exception to the hearsay rule did not apply to the evidence adduced through the complainant’s mother. Whilst ‘[t]he appellant’s wife could have given evidence of admissions against interest made by the appellant directly to her, under an exception to the rule against hearsay… the complainant’s mother could only give direct evidence about what the appellant’s wife said that the appellant had said.’ (at [12])

The Court of Appeal, citing East Metropolitan Health Service v Popovic [2019] WASCA 18, said that leading the complainant’s mother’s evidence in that way would infringe the hearsay rule because it involved using ‘out of court statements, made by the appellant’s wife about what the appellant had been told, and said in response, as evidence of the truth of what the appellant had been told by, and said to, his wife. The hearsay rule precluded that use of the mother’s evidence of the wife’s out-of-court statements to prove the truth of the wife’s statements. None of the exceptions to the hearsay rule were applicable.’ (at [12])

In short, the prosecution used the complainant’s mother’s evidence of the wife’s statements for a hearsay purpose, and the admissions exception did not apply as the statements were not made by the accused.

The State did not contend that a substantial miscarriage of justice had not occurred. The Court of Appeal ultimately allowed the appeal on this ground, setting aside the appellant’s convictions and ordering a retrial (at [13]).

An additional ground of appeal contended that the trial judge erred by directing the jury that they could consider certain statements the complainant said to her mother in 2017 and 2018 as recent complaints which could bolster the complainant’s credibility (at [16]). The Court of Appeal noted that neither of those statements should be characterised as recent complaints (at [22]), and that if they were to be admitted in the retrial for some other reason, that ‘the jury in the new trial should not be directed that the evidence can be used to bolster the complainant’s credibility or demonstrate consistency of her conduct.’ (at [27])

The judgment:

The judgment was delivered in February 2022 and can be accessed here. My thanks go to Matthew Thompson for bringing this decision to my attention.

The State of Western Australia v Quartermaine [2020] WASC 458

This decision relates to a trial by judge alone before Hall J. The accused was charged with murder, and prior to the trial, admitted that he had unlawfully killed the victim. However, the defence argued that intent could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt (‘having regard to all the circumstances, including the intoxicated state of the accused’), and that therefore the accused could only be found guilty of a lesser offence ([4]).

During the trial, Hall J was required to determine whether the defence’s expert psychiatric evidence was admissible. This issue arose because the expert opinion was partially based on information which was not supported by sworn evidence. The issue is set out at [145]-[146]:

‘The accused elected not to give evidence. That was his right and no adverse inference can be drawn from that fact. However he did call expert evidence from Dr Victoria Pascu, a forensic psychiatrist.

Dr Pascu interviewed the accused at Hakea Prison and relied on information provided by him for the purpose of forming her conclusions. Some of the information provided by the accused reflected evidence that was otherwise available. However, the accused also provided Dr Pascu with some information, including in regard to his drug and alcohol usage generally and on the night in question, that was either not supported by the evidence or was inconsistent with it. This created an issue as to the extent to which Dr Pascu’s opinions were based upon information that was not supported by sworn evidence. An objection by the prosecution was taken to Dr Pascu’s evidence on this basis.’ (emphasis added)

In essence, the accused’s choice not to give evidence meant that he did not confirm on oath what he had said to Dr Pascu. This meant that some of the foundation of Dr Pascu’s opinion was not supported by any admissible evidence at trial, in that what the accused said to Dr Pascu was hearsay.

During the trial, Hall J decided that the evidence could be led, subject to any findings about weight, because Dr Pascu confirmed that it would be possible for her ‘to exclude the information that had been provided by the accused and to only rely upon the evidence before the court, including the accused’s interview with the police’ ([147]).

Justice Hall provided detailed reasons for his decision in the judgment, concluding that:

‘In this case prior to Dr Pascu being called she was asked whether it would be possible for her to put aside the information that was provided to her by the accused and whether she would still be able to give an opinion as to [the fact in issue]. She advised that she could do this. In these circumstances I concluded that Dr Pascu’s evidence would not be based entirely on inadmissible material and that insofar as she had partly relied upon any information from the accused which had not been confirmed on oath then that would reduce the weight to be accorded to her opinion.’ ([159])

As the opinion did not wholly rely on hearsay, it was still admissible. The extent of reliance on inadmissible hearsay ‘was able to be explored in cross‑examination and is relevant to the weight to be given to her opinion’ ([152]).

This decision is of interest for the practical application of the (sometimes unclear) ‘factual foundation’ or ‘factual basis’ rule – even the nature of which is still subject to some disagreement, as some regard it as a formal rule for admissibility and others regard it as more of a practical requirement in that an opinion without an admissible factual basis cannot be of any weight. The common law authorities relating to this rule are contradictory, so Hall J’s discussion of the principle is helpful to understand which authorities are to be preferred.

In this regard, his Honour cites at [158] (inter alia, and apparently with some approval) the following passage from Ipp J’s judgment in Pownall v Conlan Management Pty Ltd (1995) 12 WAR 370:

[E]xpert opinion based entirely on inadmissible evidence is itself inadmissible and there is no discretion to admit it. I form this view as to admit such an opinion would be to admit, indirectly, the inadmissible evidence itself. If an opinion, based solely on evidence that the court by law is required to exclude, is itself admitted, the inadmissible evidence would have some influence over the court’s decision. Such a result would defeat the purpose of the law that excludes the inadmissible evidence. If the primary facts on which the evidence is based are not admissible, the opinion is valueless and irrelevant and, in my opinion, should be excluded... It is only when the primary facts upon which the opinion has been based are established that the opinion should be admitted into evidence.

On the other hand, where the expert opinion is based only partly on inadmissible testimony and that inadmissible testimony can readily be ascertained and discarded, the opinion should be admitted subject to weight.’ (emphasis added)

The judgment:
The judgment was delivered on 11 December 2020 and can be accessed here. See especially paragraphs [145]–[159] for discussion relating to admissibility of the evidence.

TBU v The Queen [2020] WASCA 76

In brief:
The appellant was convicted of importing tobacco products with the intention of defrauding the revenue, contrary to the Customs Act 1901 (Cth). The appellant was jointly tried with a co-accused (Mr Hussain) who was acquitted. The appellant argued several grounds of appeal, including that the trial judge erred by permitting Mr Hussain to give hearsay evidence which was prejudicial to the appellant’s case, and by failing to direct the jury about the limited purpose for which the evidence could be used. Ultimately the Court of Appeal refused leave to appeal on this ground but a majority allowed the appeal on another ground and accordingly ordered the conviction be set aside and a new trial take place.

Further Background & Reasons:
The relevant evidence was Mr Hussain’s response to questions in examination in chief relating to why his ABN was used for the transaction declaration. The co-accused said that ‘In this case, me, Danial and [the appellant] is involved. So Danial is not living in Australia, did not have any business number. [The appellant], he just clearly told Danial that he doesn’t want to involve his self in the – in this case. So he didn’t want his name, he didn’t want his ABN number’. In response to a follow-up question, he continued ‘And at that time I said, “okay. Maybe he don’t want so I can do.” But I don’t mind it because Danial told me it’s only naswar, not tobacco molasses, there’s nothing else.’

The trial judge allowed this evidence to be given after an objection by the appellant’s trial counsel, her Honour noting that she could provide the jury with a warning that they could only use the evidence to go to the co-accused’s knowledge and intent, not for its truth. The trial judge ultimately gave no such warning.

Mitchell JA (with whom Buss P and Mazza JA agreed on this ground) found that none of the appellant’s submissions in relation to the hearsay evidence had any merit.

First, it was not inadmissible hearsay. The out of court assertions were relevant for a purpose other than their truth: ‘Mr Hussain’s evidence as to his understanding tended to negate the inference, which might otherwise be drawn from the prosecution evidence, that he knew that tobacco products were being imported and that he intended to defraud the revenue.  The evidence was admissible for the purpose of establishing Mr Hussain’s understanding of the position when he provided his ABN to Seabridge.  The evidence was therefore relevant as going to Mr Hussain’s state of mind, and its use for that purpose did not infringe the hearsay rule’ ([162]).

Second, given that the trial judge could direct the jury about the permitted use of the evidence if required, ‘there was no basis for her Honour to have excluded the evidence on the ground that its probative value in the case against Mr Hussain was outweighed by its capacity to lead the jury to reason incorrectly to a conclusion as to the appellant’s guilt’ ([164]).

Third, though the trial judge did not ultimately provide the jury with any direction about the permissible use of the evidence, it was not required because of the way in which the evidence emerged and with an appreciation of the whole conduct of the trial ([172]). There was ‘no real risk that the jury would use Mr Hussain’s answer as evidence of what the appellant had said to Danial.  No-one suggested to them that this was the effect of the evidence, and the evidence was not given in those terms’ ([172]).

This case provides a good reminder that although the trial judge’s capacity to give directions may factor into decisions about the admission (or non-exclusion) of evidence, ultimately those directions may not be required when regard is later had to the entirety of the trial.

The judgment:
The judgment was delivered on 15 May 2020. You can access it here. See especially the paragraphs cited above.

Walker v The State of Western Australia [2020] WASCA 85

In brief:
The appellant was convicted of murder at trial. The appellant appealed on the basis that the trial judge erred in his application of the res gestae rule by excluding statements made by the appellant in an emergency services phone call which took place some minutes following the occurrence. The appellant argued that the excluded statements supported his claim of self-defence. The Court of Appeal found that the trial judge did not err and therefore dismissed the appeal.

In a joint judgment, Buss P and Mazza JA set out seven reasons why the statements were not admissible as part of the res gestae. Of particular interest is that the statements were not uttered with approximate contemporaneity to the relevant occurrence – their honours noting the passage of time and movement of space between the occurrence and the statements ([98]-[99]). Their honours also reasoned that the possibility of concoction or distortion could not be disregarded because the appellant had a motive to concoct or distort and ‘a real opportunity, despite his intoxication and agitation, to collect his thoughts and reflect on what he had said and done before he made the relevant statements’ ([102]).

Similarly, Mitchell JA noted that the context indicated a ‘real prospect that the appellant concocted or distorted his account of the altercation with the deceased to his own advantage’ ([121]. His honour also found it relevant that the statements were not made spontaneously, but in response to a question asked by the emergency line operator ([117]).

The outcome of this case is unsurprising and a relatively straightforward application of the principles from R v Andrews [1987] AC 281, Adelaide Chemical and Fertilizer Co Ltd v Carlyle (1940) 64 CLR 514, and other leading authorities on res gestae. Nonetheless, this case is an interesting application of those principles to a case where the utterance was made not by the victim, but by the person standing trial.

The judgment:
The judgment was delivered on 28 May 2020. You can access it here. See especially paragraphs [93]-[105] (Buss P and Mazza JA); [106]-[121] (Mitchell JA).