Ruling of unfit for trial over dangerous driving causing death quashed

Robert Harrison (25) charged with driving causing death of passenger Nicola Roberts (19)

Mr Justice John Edwards at the Court of Appeal said there were two interests to be balanced in a criminal prosecution: the public interest in seeing suspected offenders tried, and an individual’s right to a fair trial. File photograph: Collins Courts

Mr Justice John Edwards at the Court of Appeal said there were two interests to be balanced in a criminal prosecution: the public interest in seeing suspected offenders tried, and an individual’s right to a fair trial. File photograph: Collins Courts

 

A Circuit Court judge’s ruling that a man was unfit to be tried for dangerous driving causing death and serious injury has been overturned by the Court of Appeal.

Robert Harrison (25), of Shantonagh in Monaghan, was charged with dangerous driving causing the death of his 19-year-old passenger Nicola Roberts, and serious bodily harm to another passenger, in a crash at Drung, Cootehill, Co Cavan on November 11th, 2009.

The Court of Appeal heard Mr Harrison had been involved in a previous road traffic incident in January 2009 in which he suffered a very significant head injury and was in a coma for two months.

On July 14th, 2014, following an application on Mr Harrison’s behalf at Cavan Circuit Criminal Court, Judge Pauline Codd determined he was not fit to be tried in respect of the November 2009 offence and the Director of Public Prosecutions moved to appeal her determination.

Barrister Michael Bowman SC, for the DPP, submitted to the Court of Appeal that Mr Harrison was capable of independent living, that he has a girlfriend, that he had embarked on a course in an agriculture college after the first incident in 2009 and that he was of normal ability in many mental areas and had reasonable problem-solving skills.

Balancing interests

Giving judgment today, Mr Justice John Edwards said there were two interests to be balanced in a criminal prosecution: the public interest in seeing suspected offenders tried, and an individual’s right to a fair trial.

He said it was an error in principle to rule that Mr Harrison was unfit to be tried in circumstances where the judge indicated acceptance of evidence from an approved medical officer from the Central Mental Hospital, who had opined that he was fit to be tried.

Mr Justice Edwards said the judge’s effective ruling that Mr Harrison could not get a fair trial was premature and represented a prejudgment on an issue that had not yet arisen in concrete form for consideration.

Indeed, he said, there appeared to be a conflation of the discrete issue as to whether he was fit to be tried and the separate but somewhat related issue as to whether he could in fact receive a fair trial.

No meaningful engagement

There was no meaningful engagement with the question as to whether the public interest in a prosecution proceeding could be reconciled with the need to afford Mr Harrison a fair trial, the judge said.

Mr Justice Edwards, who sat with Mr Justice George Birmingham and Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan, said the court was not expressing a view as to whether or not it will in fact be possible to afford Mr Harrison a fair trial.

There was no reason why efforts could not be made to explore whether a person who is fit to plead within the statutory criteria but who has a mental difficulty could not somehow be assisted in the interests of ensuring he or she receives a fair trial, he said.

“The case should have been, and will now be, allowed to proceed to trial at least for the moment,” Mr Justice Edwards said.

“It will be for the trial judge to initially determine and to keep under constant review, whether this case can, or should, proceed to a conclusion,” he added.

Mr Harrison was remanded on bail to the next scheduled sitting of Cavan Circuit Criminal Court which, the court heard, is expected to be on November 22nd.