The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

Law Reform Index

Unanimous Jury Verdicts

The Press
June 23 2004

Accused may forfeit right to jury trial
by Tracy Watkins

Accused criminals could be stripped of their right to a trial by their peers if there are fears of juries being intimidated.

The measure is in legislation introducing sweeping reforms of the jury system, including the abandonment of unanimous jury verdicts in favour of an 11-1 verdict.

Parliament will vote on it for the first time next week.

The bill also lets police seek to retry those acquitted on the most serious charges if compelling new evidence comes to light or the original trial is found to have heard tainted evidence.

A measure expected to provoke complaints from defence lawyers is the fast-tracking of committal hearings to speed up the time it takes to get to trial.

Prosecutors will need to present evidence only in written form, and defendants will have an oral hearing only if a judge believes it necessary.

Justice Minister Phil Goff announced that prosecutors would be able to seek a trial by judge rather than a jury in cases where there was evidence that jurors had been or may be intimidated. A judge-only trial could also be sought in particularly long and complex cases.

ACT MP Stephen Franks said there was a risk of the judge-only provision being misused.

"Jury involvement has been a safeguard with unpopular law or where the jury thinks the Government is abusing prosucution power."

Warnings from the highest level say the change to double jeopardy rules breaches the Bill of Rights.

"The proposal will result in all persons who were accused and acquitted of these charges, regardless of the seriousness of the relevant circumstances surrounding the charge, having to live with the possibility of continued police investigation, renewed prosecution and other onerous consequences of exposure to the criminal justice system," Attorney-General Margaret Wilson said.

The legislation will have its first vote next week and could be passed next year.

In a report to Parliament, required under the Bill of Rights Act, Wilson said the double jeopardy rule was of "great significance and importance".

"It is seen as a fundamental building block of the criminal justice process and a basic safeguard of civil liberty in our legal system.

"The fundamental purpose of the double jeopardy rule is to protect individuals against the excessive use of State power.

"The State, with all its resources and powers, should not be allowed to continually subject an individual to repressive and repeated prosecutions by the State."

The change to double jeopardy rules was sparked by the trial of a New Plymouth gang member who got off on a murder charge when a witness lied about vital fingerprint evidence.

He could not be retried even after the witness recanted.

Wilson said in cases where the courts had heard tainted evidence the accused should be retried.

But the net had been cast too wide in the case of fresh and compelling evidence possibly being used to seek a new trial in crimes involving a sentence of at least 14 years.

That captured more than 40 different offences, including blackmail and aggravated burglary.