The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

Law Reform Index

Unanimous Jury Verdicts

The Evening Standard
January 24 2004

Juries must be safeguarded

It is understandable, if less than surprising, that widespread misgivings have been expressed over the Government's plans to change our centuries-old jury system and institute majority verdicts in place of unanimous decisions. Indeed, one defence lawyer went so far as to say that allowing majority verdicts could dangerously undermine public confidence in our justice system. She suggested that rather than change to majority verdicts, other ways be looked at to overhaul the system because of public disquiet over so many verdicts -- people found guilty but doubts persisting and people found not guilty when there is strong evidence that they were.

New Zealand now has a new Supreme Court but our system has always allowed for appeals and petitions, so that the likes of David Bain -- to cite one controversial verdict -- can fight on after the jury has returned. This should go some way toward allaying the fears of people such as ACT MP and lawyer Stephen Franks who worry that the authorities will try to avoid jury trials where they think a jury might refuse to convict. Justice Minister Phil Goff says when there is evidence juries have been, or might be, intimidated, his proposed new law will allow trials to be conducted by a judge alone. Majority verdicts, he says, would also reduce the prospect of hung juries -- 13 percent of High Court cases in 2000 resulted in hung juries -- and eliminate the problem of the so-called "rogue" juror, the legendary hold-out who invariably knows something the rest don't.

How much influence such people have on the behaviour of juries is largely anecdotal, of course, and who is to say that sometimes they are not right and everyone else wrong? It is also concerning that the minister talks of "potential" intimidation as a factor as well as the presumably more-provable act of intimidation itself. How is the possibility of potential intimidation to be validated? And why one juror? Is it not plausible that more than one member of a jury might be got at? In Britain this has been recognised by 10-2 verdicts which have been in place for many years.

Another aspect of the proposed reforms, which would allow for judges to hear complex cases such as fraud by themselves, makes sense especially where a trial would take longer than a month to complete. It is vital that ordinary people are not locked out of the justice system by the prospect of a lengthy trial. Trial by one's peers is a cornerstone of our system, but it is one that is increasingly jeopardised by the large numbers of people seeking exemption from sitting on a jury. From the number of people who claim to "know" that Bain is not guilty, or that Scott Watson didn't do it, an observer would think enormous numbers of people served on juries, when nothing like that is the case. Rather, some people seem unable to accept jury verdicts and seemingly have a low opinion of their fellow New Zealanders. Juries are a bastion whose integrity must be preserved at all costs.