The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

Law Reform Index

Unanimous Jury Verdicts

The Timaru Herald
January 26 2004

Juries not perfect

If the jury system was perfect, there would be no need for Justice Minister Phil Goff's proposal to allow majority decisions. The juries would always get the verdict right, and they would be unanimous in their view without any pressure being applied from inside or outside the jury room.

The move stems from a Law Commission report which found 13 per cent of jury trials in 2000 resulted in a hung jury. This was a high proportion and not necessarily reflective of complex cases where it was difficult to accept one set of evidence over another.

Of course the 12 men and women "good and true" are entitled to disagree on an outcome, and where there are two clear schools of thought on the evidence that cannot be reconciled, it is proper that juries can return to the court without agreeing on a verdict. But what needs addressing is the "rogue" juror -- the person who for whatever reason cannot be persuaded by the weight of discussion in the jury room to see the evidence in the same light as the 11 other jurors.

Mr Goff's proposal has been favourably received, although some legal practitioners are not happy at what they see as a watering down of the jury system. But they need to remember that Britain -- where much of New Zealand law originates from -- has allowed 10-2 majority verdicts for years. There, the move came after instances of jurors being bribed or intimidated. While there is little evidence of such pressure being applied in this country, good reason still exists to follow the example.

There will always be the contrary types who want to dissent for the sake of it, or jurors unable to rationalise the evidence to form an opinion and who cannot be persuaded otherwise. And it needs to be remembered that the 11-1 verdict still deals acceptably well with the "beyond reasonable doubt" aspect of a verdict. But assuming Parliament accepts Mr Goff's proposal, judges should still ensure juries strive for unanimity.

While economics should not be a factor in moving to majority verdicts, it is hard to overlook the impact of hung juries. Invariably another trial has to be rescheduled, and this when judges are already hard-pressed to keep up with the number of trials. And where the case is lengthy or complex, the cost of another trial can be measured in millions of dollars.

The Law Commission has found that juries generally do a conscientious job, and judges usually agree with the verdict delivered. Thus it is clear that the system is not broke, but it will be strengthened by allowing majority verdicts.