Shrinking jury pool worries lawyers

JIMMY ELLINGHAM
Last updated 12:00 07/02/2013

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More than three-quarters of people summoned for jury duty in Palmerston North are excused or don't turn up to court, leaving lawyers wondering if jury panels are a fair representation of the region.

New figures released to the Manawatu Standard under the Official Information Act show that between July 2007 and June 2012, 12,206 of the 69,918 people called for jury duty at the city's district court failed to show up.

That is on top of 41,876 people who were excused, as revealed by the Standard last year.

Around New Zealand almost 22 per cent of the 1.57 million people called up failed to show, while 57 per cent were excused.

Of the 341,519 no-shows in that time, only one person was fined - in Christchurch in August 2007.

Manawatu lawyer Peter Coles said there was a risk of "shrinking the jury pool" and "distorting" the cross-section of the community represented.

If those in employment were being excused, there could be a higher ratio of retired people or students.

"You're losing the sector of the community that represents the working sector," Mr Coles said.

Also missing were people with experience at decision-making and who could be good candidates to be the jury foreperson.

Fellow lawyer Tony Thackery said he noticed a lot of older people tended to serve on juries.

Something should be done about people who failed to turn up, he said.

One of those, a man who asked not to be named as it could affect his employment, told the Standardnothing happened when he didn't turn up to court.

The man had expected to be fined or arrested.

He objected to being "forced" to undertake jury duty and would have turned up if it was voluntary, saying it was a "good thing to do".

Ministry of Justice district court general manager Tony Fisher said that since legislation was introduced in 2010 to allow people to "defer" their jury duty to a more convenient time, there had been an improvement in those turning up for jury duty.

"The year-on-year trend is positive, suggesting further improvement can be anticipated." Mr Fisher also said that as jury attendance became more certain because of deferrals, fewer people would need to be summonsed to court.

Crown and defence lawyers were allowed to veto up to four people each in the jury selection process.

"We are satisfied that this provides enough rigour around the process to ensure that a suitable panel can be formed to meet the interests of justice," Mr Fisher said.

Ministry spokeswoman Karyn McLean said fining people for not turning up was a judicial decision and the ministry did not comment on such decisions.

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"Fining people for non-attendance is a resource intensive process . . . Should that person not appear, an arrest warrant would then need to be issued, taking up court and police time," Ms McLean said.

"This is why fines are rarely used, though they remain an option for people who fail to attend with no adequate excuse."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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