The High Court of Australia will hear George Pell’s application for ‘special leave’ (permission) to appeal, which if granted will provide him with the last throw of the dice to have his convictions for historical child sexual offences overturned.
The High Court of Australia is the highest court in the land.
Its primary function is to interpret and apply the law of Australia, including to decide cases of special national significance such as challenges to the constitutional validity of laws.
Before cases can be heard, the High Court must decide whether to grant special leave from cases that have come from the Federal, State and Territory courts.
George Pell’s lawyers applied for special leave after a two of a three member panel of Supreme Court of Victoria upheld his convictions for child sex offences earlier this year.
Mr Pell is currently serving a six year sentence for those offence, becoming eligible for parole after three years and eight months.
He has already served just over 5 months behind bars.
The High Court has not yet set a date for the appeal hearing, but has announced it will be in front of a full bench of seven judges.
The crux of Pell’s appeal is that the majority of the Victorian Supreme Court justices made an error by finding that it was reasonable for jurors to believe the complainant testimony against him.
In determining the appeal, the High Court will need to look at the testimony as well as the judgments of the Victorian Supreme Court justices.
Mr Pell’s appeal documents assert in part that, “There did remain a reasonable doubt as to the existence of any opportunity for the offending to have occurred.”
His lawyers will be arguing that the Victorian judges essentially reversed the onus of proof; meaning that their decision inferred that the appellant, Mr Pell, had some positive obligation to disprove the prosecution case rather than upholding the well-established principle that the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
What happens next?
Some legal commentators expected the High Court to require Mr Pell’s lawyers to make submissions about why the special leave application should be granted.
However, the court has decided not to require that step, deciding the hear both the special leave application and, if that is successful, the appeal at the same time.
That decision speeds up the process, and the hearings, before a full bench of seven justices, are expected to occur before the middle of next year.
In the event that the special leave application is granted and the appeal is heard, the decision of the majority will determine Mr Pell’s fate.
Freedom on the line
The court may decide to confirm the decision of the Supreme Court, order a new trial or quash Mr Pell’s convictions altogether.
Lawyers for the complainants in the case have released a statement to the effect that they respect the court process, and acknowledge that everyone has a right to a fair trial and to access the appeals process.
But a number of sexual assault victims and victim support groups are angry that the case is being ‘re-hashed’ over again.
George Pell has steadfastly maintained his innocence the entire way through the process.
Only time will tell whether he will be made to serve out his sentence, allowed a retrial or set free.