The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

Law Reform Index

Unanimous Jury Verdicts

The Press
January 23 2004

National, ACT back jury trial changes
by Colin Espiner

Widespread political support for majority jury verdicts should see a change to a fundamental part of the justice system this year.

The Government has reintroduced plans to scrap unanimous jury verdicts in favour of an 11-1 majority and to allow trial by judge alone in some long or complex cases.

The move comes after Labour backed off the move in 2001, following opposition from the legal community.

The Cabinet approved majority verdicts in August 2001 and at the time Justice Minister Phil Goff said he hoped legislation would be introduced to Parliament in 2002, in time for the general election.

The policy was adopted after a Law Commission report in February 2001 which recommended scrapping unanimous verdicts to reduce the risk of "irrational" jurors and hung juries.

About 13 per cent of all High Court trials by jury and 8 per cent in the district court end in deadlock, often forcing costly retrials.

Right-of-Centre parties ACT and National back the change to majority verdicts. National's justice spokesman Richard Worth said his party had been looking at the issue and, while it preferred also having a 10-2 verdict, it was likely to support the bill.

"The courts, of course, should still press juries to have unanimity of verdict because it's the second- best outcome that there be majority verdicts," he said.

Some in the legal fraternity remain concerned about the move.

Queen's Counsel Judith Ablett Kerr said such a move could not only remove a rogue juror but also the reasonable juror who had rational doubts about guilt.

"I agree that we should be looking at it but maybe we should be looking at whether there is a better system, not reducing the safeguards. Let's not water it down -- let's look at improvements," Ablett Kerr said.

Christchurch lawyer Stephen Hembrow, former president of the Criminal Bar Association, said he would prefer retaining the status quo.

"I sometimes wonder in this country if we just like change for the sake of it. Here we are once again fixing a system that isn't broken."

The Law Society also has its doubts, accepting majority verdicts only for acquittals but preferring unanimous verdicts for convictions.

Auckland District Law Society vice-president Gary Gotlieb said he doubted the change would reduce hung juries.

But Goff said the Bill, which would be before the House within the next few months, represented the best balance between the rights of an individual to a fair trial and the need for society to avoid hung juries due to one juror's personal position.

Goff said he expected some defence lawyers to object to the proposal, but he believed the only people disadvantaged by the change would be organised criminals such as gangs who attempted to intimidate jurors.

Goff also wants judge-alone trials in circumstances where juries could be intimidated, and in exceptionally lengthy or complex cases. Planned higher fees for jury service -- and fines for those who skip jury service -- may be wrapped into the same Bill.

Government support partner United Future offered cautious support for the change but said it had not decided whether to vote for it.

Leader Peter Dunne said he believed majority verdicts should only be allowed with the approval of a judge and only as a last resort.

"The preference has to be for a unanimous verdict but I think that in cases where it's clear that a jury is deadlocked there is a case for majority verdicts. But one always has to remember the Twelve Angry Men scenario," Dunne said.

It was clear some jurors were refusing to convict regardless of the evidence presented.

The Greens oppose the move. MP Nandor Tanczos described the proposals as a cost-cutting measure that would do little to enhance real justice.

"Eleven to one jury decisions would mean faster justice but not necessarily better justice," Tanczos said.

Hung juries were the result of more complex cases with high degrees of technical information to digest. The Greens supported increasing the entitlements for jurors.

ACT's justice spokesman Stephen Franks said the risks involved with majority verdicts were worth running. But he warned against tampering with the right to a trial by jury in favour of a "government-appointed" judge.