The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

Law Reform Index

Unanimous Jury Verdicts

The Evening Standard
June 29 2004

Justice changes need hard look

It seems that proposed wide-ranging changes to the system of trial by jury, which were flagged by Justice Minister Phil Goff some months ago, are at least in some respects deeply controversial, as the minister himself has said he expects them to be. It appears at least two of the city's more seasoned defence lawyers will be beating a path to the door of the select committee which will be hearing what people think about the bill.

Peter Coles and Fergus Steedman say they are not happy about changes which would see deposition hearings reduced to handed-up, written evidence only, which would mean no cross examination of evidence would be possible. It looks like Mr Goff wants the number of deposition hearings reduced on the grounds that they are clogging the courts. But of course it could also be argued that if reducing access to them impacts adversely on the rights of accused people, then more resources -- judges, and so forth -- should be put into the justice system if there is a workload problem, rather than the quality of justice diluted.

Another part of the mooted changes which the lawyers say may weaken the rights of accused people is the move to majority verdicts and away from the current unanimous requirement. They say there is a problem there because of the Court of Appeal's seeming reluctance in certain circumstances to overturn jury verdicts and the weakening of unanimity therefore could operate against a defendant because what once had to be unanimous no longer needs to be. Again, it is an issue which will be well worthy of canvassing when the public is called on to have its say. There is no way that considerations of convenience or efficiency should be allowed to take precedence over the fair treatment of someone appearing before the courts.

But having said all that, and acknowledging that our system of justice does comprise a delicate set of checks and balances, it doesn't mean the system is immutable and beyond improvement or reform. Certainly in such a system it must be borne in mind that a change in one area can have an impact -- foreseen or not -- elsewhere, but there will be widespread support, all the same, for change to the hitherto rigid double jeopardy rule. It does, as Mr Goff says, bring the justice system into disrepute when someone can publicly thumb their nose at society by subverting the course of justice because they know they can't be tried twice for the same offence even if it is later learned that they did the deed.

A similar "commonsense" view might be taken of the abandonment of unanimous jury verdicts on the grounds that people aren't like that -- get 12 in a room and there is something hopelessly artificial about forcing them to all see things the same way. Mr Goff promises "huge safeguards" to ensure that changing the double jeopardy rule doesn't damage anyone's rights, and similarly, maintains 11-one jury verdicts won't upset the balance of our justice system. We shall see, for as the minister himself notes, put together, the changes he is proposing are among the most important we have seen in this area in recent times.

One more thing: Every town needs an icon, and given Dannevirke's heritage, a Viking statue would seem to be an admirable idea. So it is pleasing to learn that the idea hasn't been totally discarded and may yet be a starter despite opposition, some of which sounds over-imaginative, to put it mildly.