Beckett v State of New South Wales [2014] NSWSC 1625 (18 November 2014)

Terry Goldberg, Partner of Turner Freeman Lawyers is representing Roseanne Beckett, who has sued the State of New South Wales for compensation for malicious prosecution. She has alleged that she was framed by ex-policeman Peter Thomas.

The plaintiff’s case is that Thomas fabricated and constructed the evidence against her in an attempt to frame her.

In 2013 Turner Freeman represented Ms Beckett in the High Court (Beckett v State of New South Wales (2013) 248 CLR 432) where we succeeded in overturning a 91-year old legal precedent (Davis v Gell (1924) 35 CLR 275). This was a long-standing authority which required that a person who was charged with a criminal offence in which the prosecution ended with a “nolle prosequi” (i.e. a discontinuance) was also required to prove her innocence in order to successfully receive compensation for malicious prosecution.

This decision meant that the plaintiff needed to prove that the State (vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Thomas):

  1. maliciously prosecuted the plaintiff; and
  2. did so with an absence of reasonable or probable cause; but

that she did not need to prove her innocence.

The significance was that the issue of alleged guilt of the plaintiff became irrelevant – the plaintiff only needed to prove that, at the time of the prosecution, the prosecutor (meaning Mr Thomas) had an actual belief that the case against the plaintiff was baseless or that the circumstances made it objectively unreasonable to believe that the plaintiff was guilty.

The State attempted to introduce evidence of Julie Catt into the proceedings, who alleged that the plaintiff had kept a hand gun in her house. The plaintiff submitted that the circumstances surrounding this evidence suggested that the witness was a liar and unreliable, because this was a piece of evidence which Julie Catt had explicitly denied at Ms Beckett’s trial and she had only changed her evidence after two decades.

The plaintiff contended that even if the new evidence of Julie Catt was true (she had changed her story to say that Ms Beckett was guilty), this evidence could not possibly have been known to Mr Thomas at the time of the prosecution – because Julie Catt’s new testimony came to light over 20 years since the conclusion of Ms Beckett’s criminal trial, and at the time of those proceedings the only evidence Mr Thomas could have possibly been aware of was Julie Catt’s sworn testimony that Beckett was innocent.

The judge held that the witness’ evidence was irrelevant, and excluded all evidence by Julie Catt.