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Law Reform Index

Unanimous Jury Verdicts

Waikato Times
January 26 2004

Jury change won't guarantee justice

Changes to the jury system allowing majority verdicts would seem to be the ideal answer to a rise in the number of hung juries.

When a jury can't make up its mind over the guilt or innocence of an accused person it is a nuisance to everyone. And huge expense when even a minor trial can involve judge, lawyers and witnesses over a considerable period.

If the whole procedure has to be repeated because one or more jurors aren't able to make a decision then it can seem to be a shocking waste of money. It also slows the wheels of justice for everyone else. A retrial has to be fitted back into a crowded court system already having problems with a backlog of cases.

In 2002 the High Court in this country disposed of 423 criminal jury trials while in the same time the District Court managed another 2273 jury trials. That's nearly 2700 trials and at current rates of hung juries about 350 might have to be heard again.

Courts Department statistics show that the incidence of hung juries has been increasing steadily in the past decade. In 1993 juries could not reach a verdict in around 3 per cent of trials. Ten years later that has jumped to around 13 per cent.

What is causing the apparent increase in hung juries is not known. Justice Minister Phil Goff, who is to soon introduce legislation allowing majority verdicts, seems sure that rogue jurors are to blame in many cases, refusing to participate in the deliberation process and meaning the jury can never deliver a unanimous verdict. Others suggest that the increasing length and complexity of trials have a lot to do with it as well as the seriousness of charges and the publicity that certain cases receive.

Dropping the requirement for a unanimous verdict would seem to make things so much easier.

But would justice be served? The classic film Twelve Angry Men tells the story of how one juror was not convinced that the prosecution had proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that a young man was guilty of murder. The other 11 jurors were happy to enter a guilty verdict until one-by-one the "rogue" juror convinced them there might be a flaw in the prosecution's argument.

That is the safeguard of the jury system, one that has worked for 600 years.

Perhaps any faults in the system lie elsewhere. There could be better education of jurors about their rights and obligations or they could be helped in their deliberations by giving them the notes of evidence already supplied to judge and counsel.

Jurors are thrown into an unfamiliar environment, expected to concentrate on a complex matter before making a decision that could have far-reaching consequences for another human being. It is no wonder that in some cases jurors cannot agree.

The system might not be perfect but a change to a majority verdict can't offer any greater guarantee that an injustice will not be done.