Van Beelen v The Queen

The High Court has dismissed an appeal against a decision of the Supreme Court of South Australia on the requirements for reopening a conviction on the basis of fresh evidence. Van Beelen was convicted of murdering a schoolgirl on a beach in 1971 on the basis of evidence that he was present at the beach at the time of her death, that he was the only person whose actions were unaccounted for at that time, and the fibres the jumper he was wearing matched those found on the deceased’s clothing. In 2013, the South Australian parliament inserted Section 353A(1) into the Criminal Law Consolidation Act 1935 (SA), which provides that the Court may allow a convicted person to bring a second appeal where it is satisfied that there is fresh and compelling evidence that should, in the interests of justice, be considered on appeal. The appeal itself may only be allowed if the Court is satisfied that there was a substantial miscarriage of justice. A majority of the SASCFC rejected the appellant’s s 353A(1) application, holding that while new expert evidence based on more recent work on stomach contents analysis showed that the earlier evidence was wrong and satisfied the ‘freshness’ and reliableness requirements, it was not substantive, reliable, highly probative or compelling: it was consistent with the initial defence expert witness’s testimony, and it did not disprove the other prosecution evidence about the time of death.

The High Court (Bell, Gageler, Keane, Nettle and Edelman JJ) unanimously held that the SASCFC erred in refusing permission to appeal because the new evidence does meet the criteria of being fresh and compelling and it is in the interests of justice that it be considered on appeal. However, the Court also held that that consideration revealed no substantial miscarriage of justice, and consequently the appeal was dismissed.

After reviewing the facts of the case (at [3]ff), the new evidence (at [8]ff), the provisions of s 353A (at [16]ff) and the SASCFC’s reasoning (at [17]ff), and the parties’ submissions (at [24]ff), the Court turned to the scope of s 353A and its application here. Noting that nothing in the extrinsic material suggested that the words ‘reliable’, ‘substantial’, or ‘highly probative’ should be given anything other than their ordinary meaning, each of these limbs must be satisfied but will commonly overlap: reliability requires the evidence be credible and provide a solid basis for fact finding; substantiality requires the evidence be of real significance or importance to the point it is tendered to prove; and being highly probative requires that it be probative in the context of the issues in dispute at trial (at [28]):

The focus of the third criterion is on the conduct of the trial. What is encompassed by the expression “the issues in dispute at the trial” will depend upon the circumstances of the case. Fresh evidence relating to identity is unlikely to meet the third criterion in a case in which the sole issue at the trial was whether the prosecution had excluded that the accused’s act was done in self-defence. On the other hand, fresh evidence disclosing a line of defence that was not apparent at the time of trial may meet the third criterion because it bears on the ultimate issue in dispute, which is proof of guilt.

Here, the new expert evidence did not merely support the original expert testimony: instead it was the basis for disproving the view, central to the trial testimony, that there a ‘normal rate’ of gastric emptying exists, and had it been known at trial, the original expert’s view on the time of death ‘should not have been admitted over objection’ (at [29]). Consequently, the new evidence met the requirements of being highly probative, because time of death was an issue in dispute at trial.

Turning then to the interests of justice requirement, the Court noted that, contrary to the SASCFC majority’s reasoning, that a conviction is long-standing does not suggest that it would be against the interests of justice to consider fresh and compelling evidence (at [30]). Moreover, the SASCFC’s consideration of this issue was premised on the view that the new expert evidence did not undermine the conclusion of guilt: that approach conflated the issue of the interests of justice with the determinative issue in the appeal itself (at [31]).

The Court then turned to consider whether the appellant has established on the balance of probability that, in light of the new evidence, there is a significant possibility that a jury, acting reasonably, would have acquitted him. This required the Court to re-examine the entirety of the evidence (at [32]). The Court then examined the evidence in detail, beginning with witness statements and autopsy (at [33]ff), the appellant’s account (at [48]ff), the fibre evidence (at [55]ff), and the conduct of the trial (at [64]ff).

Turning to the question of a substantial miscarriage of justice, the Court held that the SASCFC majority were correct to conclude that there was no significant possibility that a properly instructed jury, acting reasonably, would have voted to acquit even if the initial expert’s erroneous opinion about the time of death was not in evidence (at [75]): there was no reasonably hypothesis that the deceased left the beach with the assailant and her body deposited there later (see [68]–[72]) and the strong fibre evidence did not likely come from either her own trousers or the jumper of a person other than the appellant (at [73]ff). The Court concluded, at [75]:

Deborah was last seen alive at around 4:00pm as she ran towards the beach. Had she continued running in the direction in which Mrs Hazelwood and Mr Tajak saw her running, she would have passed the location of the appellant’s parked car. Her body was found 324 feet from that location. The appellant was on the beach at this time and he was wearing his red and black woollen jumper. The inference of guilt depended upon all of the circumstances, but critical to it was the conclusion that it was not reasonably possible that another man, wearing a knitted garment made of red and black woollen fibres in approximately the same proportion as the red and black woollen fibres of the appellant’s jumper, was present on Taperoo Beach that afternoon, and that this other man killed Deborah. Dr Manock’s evidence said nothing as to this possibility. The elimination of Dr Manock’s opinion of the time of death leaves a window of 20 minutes after the appellant left the beach and before Mrs Leach saw Deborah’s dog playing alone in which expert evidence does not exclude the fatal assault taking place. It does not, however, significantly reduce the improbability of a second man, wearing a knitted garment made of red and black woollen fibres in approximately the proportion of the red and black woollen fibres of the appellant’s jumper, being present on this relatively deserted beach that afternoon.

Finally, on the application to reopen, the Court noted that the appellant sought an order on 9 August, after the Full Court had heard the appeal, to adduce further fresh evidence (at [76]). The Court declined to consider these submissions and others: the Court’s appellate jurisdiction is confined to appeals ‘in their true sense’, and the Court cannot receive evidence that has not been considered by courts below (at [77], and see [78]ff). The Court dismissed the summons, along with the appeal.

High Court Judgment [2017] HCA 48  8 November 2017
Result Appeal dismissed
High Court Documents Van Beelen
Full Court Hearings [2017] HCATrans 137 22 June 2017
[2017] HCATrans 135 21 June 2017
Special Leave Hearing [2017] HCATrans 19 10 February 2017
Appeal from SASCFC [2016] SASCFC 71 13 July 2016
Trial Judgment, SASC (1973) 7 SASR 125 12 June 1973
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About Martin Clark

Martin Clark is a PhD Candidate and Judge Dame Rosalyn Higgins Scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Research Fellow at Melbourne Law School. He holds honours degrees in law, history and philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and an MPhil in Law from MLS. While at MLS, he worked as a researcher for several senior faculty members, was a 2012 Editor of the Melbourne Journal of International Law, tutor at MLS and various colleges, a Jessie Legatt Scholar, and attended the Center for Transnational Legal Studies Program.

2 thoughts on “Van Beelen v The Queen

  1. I sometimes wonder whatever became of Brian Sandercock. Sandercock, on 18 July 1971, confessed to Detective Zeunert of the SA Police, that he had raped and murdered a girl on Taperoo Beach on or about the day in question. It seems that Sandercock was considered quite mad. His statement would have been inadmissible hearsay upon the trial of Van Beelen, so said the full court of the Supreme Court of South Australia hearing a reference to the court of Van Beelen’s petition for exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy, in In re Van Beelen (1974) 9 SASR 163, notwithstanding that three wharfingers had observed a man with a limp (probably Sandercock) not far from the beach. They told the police the man with the limp had wet trouser cuffs and was behaving oddly. This was significant, it was argued, because it was not merely a question whether a hearsay assertion of guilt had been made, but whether the ‘man-who-had-made-a-confession’ could be identified with the ‘man-who-was-near-the-scene, man-who-was-acting-stilly, man-whose-trouser-bottoms-were-wet’ — see 9 SASR at 199. Information about Sandercock’s statement to the police — and those of persons who saw a person who was probaby Sandercock — made it into the running sheets, but the information was not disclosed to Van Beelen’s lawyers until after his (Van Beelen’s) appeal against his conviction to the Court of Criminal Appeal, SA, had been heard and dismissed.

  2. I wonder if it is worth speculating whether Sandercock’s statement to the police (his false confession, considered by the police and the judges to be unworthy of belief) would nevertheless be required to be produced to the defence (on request) nowadays under section 509AJ of the Criminal Code (Qld), which I assume has rough analogues throughout the country.

    Is a third party confession which is not worthy of belief ever relevant?

    Cf Uniform Evidence Act — Cth version:

    65 Exception: criminal proceedings if maker not available

    (1) This section applies in a criminal proceeding if a person who made a previous representation is not available to give evidence about an asserted fact.

    (2) The hearsay rule does not apply to evidence of a previous representation that is given by a person who saw, heard or otherwise perceived the representation being made, if the representation:


    (d) was:

    (i) against the interests of the person who made it at the time it was made; and

    (ii) made in circumstances that make it likely that the representation is reliable.

    (I suppose not everything that is capable of being characterised as relevant need be admissible, though of course what is to be tendered in evidence must be relevant to be admissible.)

    What if the confessor has not signed a statement? Is the oral statement as reduced to writing in the running sheets or where-ever, by the police, a ‘statement’ by a person whom the prosecution does not propose to call?

    What if the police never produce the relevant writing to the prosecution authority?

    And — as more relevant to the issues considered by the HC of A this year, as to re-opening convictions upon the discovery of fresh evidence — is evidence ‘freshly discovered’ if known to the prosecution all along — but only becomes known at some later date, to the ‘defence’?

    [Extract from the Criminal Code (Qld)]

    590AJ Disclosure that must be made on request

    (1)This section applies—

    (a)without limiting the prosecution’s obligation mentioned in section 590AB(1); and

    (b)subject to section 590AC(1)(a) and chapter subdivision D.

    (2)For a relevant proceeding, the prosecution must, on request, give the accused person—


    (e) a copy of any statement of any person relevant to the proceeding and in the possession of the prosecution but on which the prosecution does not intend to rely at the proceeding; and

    (f)a copy or notice of any other thing in the possession of the prosecution that is relevant to the proceeding but on which the prosecution does not intend to rely at the proceeding.

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