On 14 April 2016 the Court of Criminal Appeal allowed an appeal against the sentence imposed upon Brenda Lee Haines for murder and made orders resentencing Ms Haines and releasing her forthwith. Today the Court published its reasons for that decision.
Ms Haines committed the offence on 3 March 2001 but was found unfit to be tried and remained in custody and under the supervision of the Mental Health Review Tribunal until April 2013, when the Tribunal formed the opinion that she had become fit to be tried.
On arraignment, she entered a plea of not guilty by reason of the defence of mental illness on the basis of an expert report which had been provided to Ms Haines’ legal advisers in which the author, a psychiatrist, expressed the opinion that such a defence was available.
However, prior to the trial, the psychiatrist provided a further report in which he withdrew his opinion as to the availability of the mental illness defence. Four days later, Ms Haines was re-arraigned and pleaded guilty.
The sentencing judge found that Ms Haines had not pleaded guilty at the first reasonable opportunity after she had been found fit to plead. Allowing for a discount of 15% for the plea, his Honour sentenced Ms Haines to imprisonment for 17 years with a non-parole period of 12 years and 9 months.
But the Court of Criminal Appeal found that, in the circumstances, Ms Haines had pleaded guilty as soon as reasonably possible, having done so almost immediately after it became apparent that the defence of mental illness was no longer available to her. The Court was of the view that, in the exceptional circumstances of the case, the reason for the delay in entering the guilty plea ought to have been taken into account and, accordingly, she was entitled to the maximum 25% discount for the plea. Adopting the same starting point as the sentencing judge, the head sentence on resentencing was one that expired on 2 March 2016.
Full Judgement here.
Extract below from the “Determination” section of the judgment:
- “In the present case, the challenge to the sentencing judge’s assessment of the discount for the guilty plea requires demonstration of error of the kind referred to in House v The King  HCA 40; (1936) 55 CLR 499 at 505. It is clear from his Honour’s reasons that he had in mind, when setting out the chronology of events in relation to the guilty plea, that the psychiatrist who had been retained on Ms Haines’ behalf had withdrawn his opinion as to the availability of the defence of mental illness () (and to the steps that had been taken to limit the length and complexity of the trial). Nevertheless, it is not apparent how that factor was taken into account, if at all, in his Honour’s assessment that Ms Haines did not plead guilty at the “first reasonable opportunity after she became able to do so” ().
- Having regard to her long history of mental illness, during which time his Honour accepted Ms Haines could not have pleaded guilty, and the reliance that one would expect to be placed by Ms Haines and her legal advisers on the assessment of a specialist forensic psychiatrist in determining the availability of a defence of mental illness, in all the circumstances it must be concluded that his Honour erred in finding that Ms Haines did not plead guilty at the first opportunity when it was reasonable for her to do so.
- In those circumstances the sentencing discretion miscarried. Having regard to the fact that there was almost no delay in her change of plea once Dr Giuffrida confirmed his change of mind and expressed the opinion that she probably did not have such a defence, it can be inferred that had Dr Giuffrida been from the outset of the view that he ultimately reached then there would have been a plea of guilty when Ms Haines was first arraigned. The delay caused by the vacation of the May trial date was clearly for the purpose of enabling certainty as to Dr Giuffrida’s assessment of her mental state at the relevant time.
- In the exceptional circumstances of this case, the reason for the delay in entering a guilty plea must be taken into account, as must the fact that Ms Haines had also co-operated in confining the issues to be dealt with at the trial, which was not to take place before a jury, to the testing of the evidence of the two psychiatrists. The effect of the latter is that the utilitarian value of the guilty plea, even though only shortly before the trial date, remained high.”