The Case of Dietrich v The Queen

A court case in which a law is interpreted differently than ever before often makes whatever particular subject of the case reach headlines. There is usually quite a bit of controversy. When a ruling is brought down in these situations it can influence the future of similar cases in the future. Dietrich v The Queen in 1992 was a great example of such a court case.

Dietrich v The Queen was a very important case concerning the nature of the right to a fair trial. It also highlighted in what circumstances legal aid should be provided by the state for defendants who cannot afford legal representation. The issue began when the accused, Olaf Dietrich flew from Bangkok, Thailand to Melbourne Airport concealing 70 grams of heroin in condoms that he had swallowed. Australian Federal Police arrested Dietrich the next morning and he was taken into custody. 

While being tried in the County Court of Victoria for charges relating to drug trafficking the accused did not have any legal representation. While Dietrich had applied for the Legal Aid Commission of Victoria’s assistance, it said that unless he pleaded guilty it would not help him. Dietrich refused to plead, and instead applied to the Supreme Court of Victoria for assistance, but once again was turned down. While Dietrich was acquitted of the lesser charge, he was convicted on the principal charge in the County Court. Dietrich then took his appeal to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it. Finally, he then sought leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia.

During the appeal in the High Court Dietrich was represented by David Grace of the Queen’s Counsel. The argument stated that his trial in County Court had been a miscarriage of justice because he did not have legal representation. His lawyer argued that because of the seriousness of the crimes he was charged with counsel should have been provided to him at the public’s expense. If that was not possible, it was alternatively argued that the judge should have adjourned the trial until Dietrich could obtain counsel for himself. 

Dietrich used three different sources in law to prove his point. The first was a section of the Victorian Crimes Act 1958 which has since been repealed. The second was the obligation of Australia under the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The article of importance in the Covenant provides that an accused person should have legal assistance provided in any case where the interest of justice so required. Australia hasn’t incorporated the ICCPR into its own domestic laws with any type of specific legislation, however, Dietrich argued that common law of Australia should be developed in principle of the ICCPR and other international treaties that the country is a part of. 

In the High Court, the majority of judges decided that Dietrich did have the right to a fair trial and by not allowing him proper legal representation the original trial was unfair. Furthermore, it was concluded that when someone accused does not have legal representation, through no fault of their own and is charged with a serious offence, a judge can order than a trial is stayed until legal representation is available.

The nature of this trial focused on the common law tradition that anyone accused is entitled to a fair trial. This case was significant in not only criminal law, but also in Australian constitutional law because members of the High Court found implied human rights in the Australian Constitution.

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