Jury dodgers 'risk undermining justice'

SHABNAM DASTGHEIB
Last updated 05:00 28/01/2013

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More than a third of Wellingtonians dodged jury service in the past year and nearly 2500 were granted a deferral to a more convenient time.

A legal expert has warned the high numbers of people being excused from jury service has the potential to undermine the justice system.

Figures released under the Official Information Act show that in the year ending October 31, 6292 of the 15,711 people summoned for jury service at Wellington District Court were excused.

In addition, 2481 people were successful in having their service deferred to a more convenient time.

Grant Morris, a senior law lecturer at Victoria University, said the high numbers of those excused had been an issue for a long time and it was something that undermined the justice system to some extent.

"It goes to the heart of the philosophy of jury service. We are missing a big chunk of the population. The sort of people who get excused tend to be people who are in particular jobs."

From Dr Morris' experience, groups that tended to be over-represented in jury service were beneficiaries and students, while those who were self-employed or in a management role tended to be under-represented.

Dr Morris said the lack of some groups of people on juries meant those people's views were not being represented and this went against the idea of being judged by your peers.

"If particular groups in society are over-represented then they are bringing their own particular perspectives, but the idea is that those ideas should be balanced by other groups in society."

It was important to represent a cross-section of society within a jury, he said.

The most common reasons given to avoid jury service at the District Court were occupation and business commitments, followed by family commitments. At the High Court it was occupation and business, followed by age.

Potential jurors can be excused from jury service provided they can cite a valid reason.

Reasons for being excused and deferred have been separated into categories, including health, family commitments, aged 65 or over, personal circumstances and physical or intellectual disability.

People aged over 65 have the option of being permanently excused from jury service.

Dr Morris said one solution might be for the Justice Ministry to take a harder line on excusals, particularly now that a deferral option was available.

"So often it's related to work commitments and everyone has ups and downs in their work."

Since 2010, potential jurors have also been able to defer jury service until a more convenient time.

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In the High Court at Wellington, 1987 people were excused from a total of 5433 people summoned to serve. A further 1079 had their jury service deferred.

Across courts throughout the lower North Island, 62,739 people were summoned in the year ending October 31.

Of those, 27,087 were excused while a further 9334 were granted a deferral.

A Justice Ministry spokesman said it recognised that many people had personal circumstances that made it difficult for them to attend.

"For this reason we summons many more people than we need."

- The Dominion Post

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