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Dawson verdict a ‘powerful moment in Australian legal history’

The judgment in the trial of Chris Dawson, which came about in the wake of The Teacher’s Pet podcast, offers key takeaways for Australian legal practitioners.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 01 September 2022 The Bar
Dawson verdict a ‘powerful moment in Australian legal history’
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Chris Dawson — who was the subject of The Teacher’s Pet podcast, produced by The Australian — has been found guilty of murdering his wife, Lynette, more than 40 years ago.

In a judge-alone trial in the Supreme Court of NSW, Justice Ian Harrison held earlier this week that the theory that Lynette Dawson had left her Northern Beaches home in Sydney voluntarily in 1982 was “extremely unlikely” and amounted to “speculation, conjecture or supposition”.

His honour said — during a five-hour reading of the judgment — that, after consideration of all the evidence, the court was satisfied that Ms Dawson was dead and that she died on or about 8 January 1982. Justice Harrison was satisfied that she had died as a result of a conscious and voluntary act by Mr Dawson, with the intention of causing her death.

 
 

Mr Dawson’s lawyer, Greg Walsh, said that an appeal is “probable”.

“I can confirm that it’s probable, of course, that he will appeal against his conviction,” he told reporters following the judgment.

“Mr Dawson has always asserted, and he still does, his absolute innocence of the crime of which he’s been convicted. He’ll continue to assert that innocence.”

Reflections on a judge-alone trial

The trial of Mr Dawson, Executive Law Group managing partner and head of litigation Jahan Kalantar said, has been a “fascinating study in where the law, popular culture and perception collide”.

Very few cases, he pointed out, have “created such outrage and sparked such a stir” in the broader Australian community.

The case that arose as a result of the podcast, Armstrong Legal practice director of criminal law Trudie Cameron detailed, was a lengthy and complex one.

“It covered numerous aspects of criminal and evidence law including circumstantial cases, context evidence, hearsay, forensic disadvantage, character of an accused, inculpatory and exculpatory admissions, hearsay and even an asserted tendency,” she listed.

“The judgement allows lawyers to observe the interplay between complex questions of admissibility of evidence, the application of trial directions and how such applies in practice to inform the use to be made of evidence and the ultimate findings of fact that can be made.”

In ordinary circumstances, Ms Cameron went on, proceedings such as this would have been tried before a jury, without reasons being published as to how they arrived at their decision.

However, given the widespread publicity and other matters, brought on partly by the fame of the podcast, the case was ultimately tried before a judge alone.

“Because of this, the public and the legal profession have the benefit of his honour’s very extensive reasons,” she said.

“These reasons will no doubt feature heavily in the considerable reporting of this case by the media. They will be available for members of the public, media and legal profession alike to discuss, dissect and analyse.”

J Sutton Associates director and principal Andrew Tiedt said that the judgment delivered by Justice Harrison was a “brilliant example” about what is great about judge-alone trials.

“Rather than a simple guilty or not guilty from a jury foreman, we had a detailed, comprehensive judgement that explained exactly why his honour reached his verdict,” he said.

“If the verdict is appealed, the Court of Criminal Appeal will be able to carefully consider, with precision, how the verdict was reached and whether his honour fell into error.”

In Mr Dawson’s case, Ms Cameron said in the support, rather than provide separate rulings and judgments for each and every pre-trial issue or objection as the issues arose, his honour — for the most part — heard the evidence and resolved to determine the issues of admissibility and use of evidence at the conclusion of the matter.

Because of this, she explained, “we have a comprehensive judgement which details not only the evidence led by the parties in the proceedings, but whether that evidence was admissible (and why), what use was to be made of it, what directions were to apply and what ultimate findings were made”.

What the verdict means for lawyers

For those in the legal profession, Ms Cameron continued, his honour’s judgment provides a “valuable insight” into how decisions were made with respect to the admissibility of evidence and the way in which that evidence could be used in criminal proceedings to determine the guilt or innocence of an accused.

“For the vast majority of criminal trials, lawyers will only have the benefit of short reasons or judgments on pre-trial issues or objections,” she noted.

“They will not have the benefit of reasons or a judgement that reveal how the jury reached their ultimate decision, what findings of fact were made, what use was made of evidence and how directions were actually applied.”

Looking ahead, Mr Kalantar mused that popular podcasts, like The Teacher’s Pet, could lead to miscarriages of justice.

This fear, he said, is valid — while adding a disclaimer for these particular proceedings.

“In this case, the court did a spectacular job of going through the evidence and clearly articulating why guilt was established,” he said.

“There will no doubt be an appeal, but what a powerful moment in Australian legal history.”