The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

Law Reform Index

Unanimous Jury Verdicts

The Daily News
January 27 2004

Defendants' rights balanced against those of the public

Lawyers and cynics argue that the Government's push towards majority jury verdicts is more about saving money than improving the delivery of justice. However, one needs to be only mildly cynical to equally suggest that the lawyers' concern is more about a potential cut in court work than maintaining the quality of justice. The Government's advisory group, the Law Commission, says 13% of High Court cases and around 8% of District Court hearings result in hung juries -- meaning the 12 jurors cannot reach the total agreement required for conviction, and give up the argument. This, of course, means that the process will have to be repeated in a court calendar that is already grossly overcrowded -- but it does offer continuity of employment for the legal fraternity, which might be consolation for them.

In 2001, the Law Commission reported, as requested, on the wisdom of allowing majority verdicts -- the most important item in a proposed overhaul of the rules and conditions surrounding jury trials. It is a sensitive issue, and for valid reasons. Trial by a randomly selected panel of one's peers, and their obligation to agree unanimously before a conviction can be attained, has been an enshrined legal right that dates back to 14th-century Britain. That benchmark country, however, recognised in 1967 that the requirement for unanimous verdicts were not only clogging the judicial system, but -- more significantly -- were vulnerable to "nobbling". If agents of the defendant could bribe or intimidate just one juror, the resultant impasse would mean the trial would have to be at least rerun and possibly abandoned.

Britain shifted to 10-2 majority verdicts, with the proviso that jury debate must continue for at least two hours before accepting that one or two members, for whatever evidential reasons and perverse personal philosophies, would forever oppose conviction. The New Zealand Law Commission has taken a more cautious line. It recommends the 11-1 option, with the added safeguard of four hours' minimum discussion. The aim, in Britain, Australia -- where states have various forms of majority verdicts -- and New Zealand will remain unanimous decisions, and the judicial culture will still try to encourage juries to fully thrash out the evidence in the hope that they will reach total agreement -- to either convict or acquit.

Justice Minister Phil Goff aims to bring in the law change this year, along with changes that should improve the width and depth of the jury pool -- notably the opportunity to postpone service for a year under certain conditions, but coupled with the counterbalancing lever of $1000 fines for avoiding what should be seen as a community duty. The proposals are well-researched, timely and sensible.