News: Epilogue to the Beckett malicious prosecution case

In 2013, the High Court held that there was no requirement to prove innocence in malicious prosecution in the case of Beckett v New South Wales [2013] HCA 17. I wrote an opinion on the case here. Ms Beckett’s malicious prosecution case was then remitted back to the New South Wales Supreme Court for decision. Readers may be interested to hear that the New South Wales Supreme Court has now determined that case.

The case arose because the police officer, Peter Thomas, who had primarily been responsible for collecting the evidence which led to Ms Beckett’s prosecution bore considerable animosity towards her. As Harrison J indicates at [170], Thomas died before the proceedings were concluded, and was not available to give evidence.

Harrison J held that malicious prosecution was made out in relation to count 2 (a count of perjury) and count 6 (a count of soliciting a third party to murder her ex-husband) in Beckett v New South Wales [2015] NSWSC 1017. Ms Beckett was awarded $2,310,350 in damages. This included $1,825,200 for non-economic loss stemming from Ms Beckett’s wrongful deprivation of liberty, $100,000 in aggravated damages (reflecting the distress and anxiety she suffered), $200,000 in exemplary damages (punishing the defendant), $120,000 (reflecting the damage to Ms Beckett’s reputation), $62,400 (reflecting loss of income) and $2,750 (for legal fees in relations to counts 2 and 6).

Harrison J commenced and concluded his judgment with memorable quotes. At the outset he quoted from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, a text written in the 6th Century after Boethius was imprisoned by the Ostrogothic King, Theoderic the Great. Boethius was later horribly executed. In the excerpted quote, Boethius talks of being deserted by good fortune. No doubt Harrison J imagined that Ms Beckett must have been assailed by similar thoughts while incarcerated.

At [841], the penultimate paragraph of the judgment, Harrison J concluded, “Smart AJ in Regina v Catt at [361] described Detective Thomas’ behaviour as “regrettable”. I agree with that description, even if it is unduly favourable to him. In the end result I have formed my conclusions without proceeding to a finding that Detective Thomas’ behaviour was instrumental in the production or the fabrication of evidence that was not, or would not have been, otherwise available for use in the prosecution of Ms Beckett.”

Thus Ms Beckett’s claims were vindicated in a way that must surely have provided some satisfaction for her. At any rate, she escaped the terrible fate of Boethius.

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About Katy Barnett

Katy Barnett is a Professor at Melbourne Law School. She has published extensively in the areas of private law and remedies, and is a co-author of ‘Remedies in Australian Private Law’ with Dr Sirko Harder. In 2016 she received the Barbara Falk Award for excellence in teaching.