The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

Law Reform Index

Unanimous Jury Verdicts

The Press
June 26 2004

Chch legal experts find little joy in law reforms
By Amanda Warren

Christchurch lawyers have panned Government moves to reform the criminal justice system.

The Criminal Procedures Bill, introduced to Parliament this week, proposes the abandonment of unanimous jury verdicts in favour of 11-1 verdicts; allowing prosecutors to opt out of jury hearings if there is evidence of juror intimidation; and changing double-jeopardy rules to allow a retrial if compelling new evidence comes to light.

However, Christchurch lawyers argue many of the proposed changes are unnecessary.

Nigel Hampton, QC, a spokesman for the Howard League for Penal Reform, found little merit in the new bill.

Hampton said moves to allow prosecutors to opt for judge-only hearings was a case of "expediency rules" and showed little regard for New Zealanders' constitutional right to have their case heard before a jury.

He was equally derisive of plans to abandon the requirement of unanimous jury verdicts.

Arguments given for the change include the contention it would result in fewer hung juries and reduce the possibility of a rogue juror swaying the majority.

"I just think it undermines the integrity of juries' verdicts. The so- called rogue juror doesn't exist in my view. In 40 years I've never seen or heard of the existence of such a beast," Hampton said.

Neither did he believe there was any valid reason for the Government to introduce legislation changing double-jeopardy rules, which at present mean a person accused and acquitted of charges cannot be charged again for the same crime.

"They want to widen it so prosecutors can have a second crack if they come up with more evidence. If the state wants to charge someone, then the state has to get organised and do it once and once only," Hampton said.

Canterbury Criminal Bar Association president Allister Davis said several of the provisions in the new bill were "knee-jerk" political reactions to public outcry following particular cases.

"As the bill goes through the select committee I suspect there will be some changes, some significant changes," Davis said.

He was particularly concerned that any move to abandon double- jeopardy rules could leave a "sword hanging over the head" of anyone acquitted of a crime.

"If people are acquitted, they are entitled to believe it's all over and done with. This double- jeopardy issue has been blown out of all proportion because of one case," Davis said.

He believed a better way to deal with situations such as the trial of a New Plymouth gang member who got off on a murder charge when a witness lied about vital fingerprint evidence could be increasing the maximum penalty for perjury.

Just Cause, a group of Christchurch lawyers formed to speak out on legal issues, believed the arguments raised in favour of majority verdicts were illusory and would "weaken and diminish" the criminal justice system. It said unanimous verdicts were a "lynchpin" of the judicial system and had served the community well.

Lawyer Gerald Lascelles described the bill as a push toward the "speedy dispense of justice" driven by economic factors.

He did not support its main provisions, which he believed would impinge on people's basic freedoms.

The legislation will have its first vote next week.