New Appeal: Must a trial judge give an accomplice warning, even where that’s not requested by counsel for the defence?

In this determination, Director of Public Prosecutions v Fitzgerald, the Supreme Court granted Fitzgerald leave to appeal on the question:

Whether a trial judge is required to give an accomplice warning, even where the trial judge is not requested to do so by counsel for the defence.

 

Background

A jury convicted Fitzgerald of murder. At trial, Kelly gave evidence for the prosecution that Fitzgerald had been in her home prior to the killing; that he was in possession of a shotgun; that he left her home with the shotgun; that she heard shots fired at a neighbouring house; and that Fitzgerald returned to her home with the shotgun claiming to have killed the victim.

Fitzgerald was represented at trial by a solicitor, barrister and Senior counsel. The trial judge inquired whether Fitzgerald wanted the jury to be given an accomplice warning. Fitzgerald’s legal team did not request a warning.

After his conviction, Fitzgerald changed solicitor and appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeal. Among other grounds, he claimed that his conviction was unsound due to the trial judge not giving the jury an accomplice warning on Kelly’s evidence. The Court of Appeal accepted that Kelly was an accomplice but dismissed his appeal on grounds that the trial judge was not required to give a warning where the defendant had not requested one. Fitzgerald applied to the Supreme Court for leave to appeal.

 

Supreme Court

The State objected to Fitzgerald’s application, arguing that the law in this area is clear and no issue of general importance arose. Also, it argued that Fitzgerald chose to undermine Kelly’s evidence by other means, and if the trial judge had done so it would have been an interference with Fitzgerald’s right to conduct his defence in the manner of his own choosing.

But the Court determined that:

In the circumstances of this case, it is clear that the Court of Appeal viewed Ms. Kelly as an accomplice; notwithstanding that view, having regard to the way in which the defence was conducted, it concluded that no corroboration warning was necessary in respect of her evidence. The question therefore arises as to whether such a warning is required or not. The Court is satisfied that the Applicant herein has raised an issue of general public importance, namely:

“Whether a trial judge is required to give an accomplice warning, even where the trial judge is not requested to do so by counsel for the defence.”

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