Jones v Dunkel Rule – what does it mean?

After the judge had finished summing up a juryman asked a direct question seeking further guidance upon the significance of the fact that the defendant Hegedus could have given evidence and did not. His question was: “Rightly or wrongly I have it in my mind that the defendant could have come here today and given evidence. Am I entitled to regard that in my mind as a weakness in the case of the defendants, that he did not?” The judge said: “Counsel for the defendant has the responsibility for the conduct of the defence. Counsel decided not to call evidence, and having directed you already with regard to that matter I do not propose to say anything more to you.” Counsel for the plaintiff then intervened and in the course of doing so referred to what Jordan C.J. had said in De Gioia v. Darling Island Stevedoring and Lighterage Co. Ltd. (1941) 42 SR (NSW) 1; 59 WN 22 , and submitted “when the matter goes to the jury then I do submit that the jury are entitled to take into consideration that here was a case where on the merits there was one person who could have told them the facts and they have no answer from that person”. Counsel for the defendants then submitted that the plaintiff had the onus of proof “and the fact that the defendant does not call any evidence does not absolve the plaintiff from proving her case”. The trial judge then gave a further direction as follows: “This is the position, the defendant having called no evidence it is a matter of common sense that you should accept the plaintiff’s evidence with respect to the facts as being accurate. The fact that the defendant Hegedus has not gone into the box and offered any explanation leaves you in this position, that you can accept the facts given by the plaintiff as proved, but the question then is whether you should find negligence against him as a matter of inference to be drawn from those facts, and that is the question for you, whether you think from the proved facts an inference of negligence ought to be drawn. If you think so, the plaintiff is entitled to your verdict. If, on the other hand, you think no such inference can be drawn then the verdict must go against the plaintiff and in favour of the defendant.” (at p312)

8. I regard this direction as incomplete and because the trial judge gave it as part of his answer to the juryman’s question and after counsel for the plaintiff had objected to the earlier part of that answer, I think O. XXII, r. 15, does not prevent the misdirection being taken as a ground of appeal. (at p312)

9. In my opinion a proper direction in the circumstances should have made three things clear: (i) that the absence of the defendant Hegedus as a witness cannot be used to make up any deficiency of evidence; (ii) that evidence which might have been contradicted by the defendant can be accepted the more readily if the defendant fails to give evidence; (iii) that where an inference is open from facts proved by direct evidence and the question is whether it should be drawn, the circumstance that the defendant disputing it might have proved the contrary had he chosen to give evidence is properly to be taken into account as a circumstance in favour of drawing the inference. (at p312)

10. Taking the summing-up as a whole I think the first and second matters to which I have referred were covered adequately but I do not think that the third was referred to at all and in giving the guidance that the juryman sought not only was no reference made to it but the distinction made in the course of the summing-up between “proved facts” and “inferences” was emphasised and the impression was conveyed that once the jury came to the point of drawing inferences the defendant’s absence from the witness-box could have no significance. To use the words of Smith J. in Black v. Tung [1953] VicLawRp 84; (1953) VLR 629 : “The charge therefore withdrew from their consideration a matter which, if there was evidence proper to be submitted to them, they were entitled to regard as rendering more probable the inferences as to negligence and causation contended for by the plaintiffs” (1953) VLR, at pp 634, 635 . In my opinion this entitled the plaintiff to a new trial. (at p313)

11. The Full Court was, it appears, inclined to think that there was no case to go to the jury and being of that view it rejected the argument that the failure of Hegedus to give evidence could be relied upon to supply the deficiency of evidence. I agree with the Full Court that the failure of Hegedus to give evidence could not be used to fill gaps or to convert suspicion into inference but I treat this as a case where the failure to give evidence could be used to assist the jury in deciding which of the inferences open to them they should draw. (at p313)

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