Empty threats show failings

GRANT MILLER ON POLITICS
Last updated 12:00 11/02/2013

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OPINION: There is something irksome about organisations that make idle threats.

The annoyance factor is ratcheted up when the guilty party is a government agency called the Ministry of Justice.

The ministry presumably intends to maintain a not-guilty plea, hoping to get off the charge on a technicality, but a series of numbers goes a long way to making the situation clear.

Of the 341,519 people in New Zealand who did not bother to show up for jury duty between July 2007 and June 2012, one person was fined.

One.

In 2007.

Of the 69,918 people summoned to the Palmerston North courts for jury duty, 12,206 were no-shows. What happened to them? Nothing, it appears.

A further 41,876 people had their attendance in Palmerston North excused.

What this adds up to is an extraordinary absence rate, where more than three-quarters of citizens summoned to duty in Palmerston North's courts are not there. So the chances of getting a genuine cross-section of the community on a jury are not flash.

If you thought the ministry was worried about this, you would be mistaken. It has shown a remarkably cavalier attitude to a key tenet of the justice system - an element that arguably affects the likelihood of good decision-making occurring.

But back to empty threats.

So convincing is the language of compulsion in the letters to prospective jurors that more than half of recipients feel compelled to offer reasons why they cannot go.

It turns out the stick-waving is just a trick to fool the law-abiding into co-operating.

Hackles will be rising in the ministry concerning the theme of this column, and any defence of its conduct will go something like this: The ministry does not poke its nose into judicial matters. That's what the police and judiciary are for, and their resources are limited.

The ministry sees merit in some criminal cases being judged by 12 peers of the alleged criminal but its interest need not extend to pursuing people who shirk their civic duty. Should the judiciary decide to pursue people who don't turn up for jury duty, the ministry would provide the necessary support.

The average person might think this is splitting hairs, but the ministry is at least clear about its functions. "The Ministry of Justice delivers court and tribunal services including collection of fines and reparation, provides policy advice and negotiates Treaty of Waitangi claims on behalf of the Government," its website says.

"The Ministry of Justice is the lead justice sector agency and also supports the judiciary."

Carefulness about roles does not preclude the ministry from having a view about the practicality of fining people. "Fining people for non-attendance is a resource-intensive process . . . Should that person not appear, an arrest warrant would then be issued, taking up court and police time," ministry spokeswoman Karyn McLean told the Manawatu Standard last week.

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In other words, if I fail to turn up for jury duty, the Ministry of Justice couldn't care less.

The system lacks integrity. Technically, the ministry merely suggests the possibility of a fine, and makes no mention of the chances of the authorities being motivated to pursue the matter. But most people infer there is a real chance of something bad happening to them should they fail to do their civic duty.

So, if I'm disinclined to participate in the process, the ministry is happy to twist my arm with some intimidatory bluster, implying a possible fine.

The ministry might as well say God might strike me down with lightning. It knows full well nothing will happen if I fail to co-operate.

More importantly, it doesn't appear to be too worried if an important decision-making process is compromised by the makeup of the panel.

Juries make decisions affecting people's lives, but the ministry is ambivalent about the people tasked with this responsibility, pays them poorly and is indifferent about whether they turn up.

If you're putting together a board of directors, one priority is that there is a mix of skills among the members. This is meant to lead to good decision-making. It may lead to different angles being considered - different perspectives being weighed up in a more robust fashion than would occur if the board members had a lot in common.

Statistically, we know that larger pools produce more reliable random samples.

Yet the ministry is happy there is "enough rigour around the process to ensure that a suitable panel can be formed", as district court general manager Tony Fisher put it. The ministry is satisfied the status quo, while not perfect, is good enough.

What's not good enough is that the Ministry of Justice doesn't mind if people flout the law.

It would be nice if one of its priorities was to do all it could to promote the interests of justice.

* Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.

- Manawatu Standard

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