Sub-par juries 'devalue' justice

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 05:00 26/08/2012
Ewen Macdonald
NOT GUILTY ON MURDER CHARGE: Ewen Macdonald.

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Juries of the unemployed and retired are "devaluing" the system and leading the public to believe not-guilty verdicts like those in the Ewen Macdonald case are wrong, a prominent barrister says.

More than 56 per cent of Kiwis summonsed for jury duty in the last financial year excused or deferred themselves from service, Ministry of Justice figures show.

In Canterbury, the figure is worse, with two-thirds of those summonsed being excused.

The figures, obtained under the Official Information Act, have "alarmed" lawyers and prompted the Law Society to suggest it might be time for a government review of the opt-out process.

Christchurch barrister Simon Shamy said it was “common knowledge” professional people were excusing themselves from jury service, especially lengthy trials, because of work commitments.

That altered the representative nature of the jury, and left the unemployed and retired to fill the gaps. And if the public believed juries were made up of beneficiaries and superannuitants, the verdicts they reached would not be considered to "have the same standing as a decision made by a panel of 12 professionals”, he said.

"Every high-profile case you see these days, particularly when there is an acquittal, there's always a whole lot of commentary about how the jury got it wrong.

"People are not respecting jury verdicts as much as they used to, because jurors are not seen as being smart people."

After last month's high-profile not-guilty verdict of Macdonald, there was widespread public opinion the “jury got it wrong”, Shamy said. "People were asking how could they possibly have found him not guilty?" In the days after the trial, a survey was conducted by market research company UMR that found almost half of the 750 Kiwi respondents believed Macdonald was guilty.

But Shamy did not agree with the public perception, and said he still had faith in the jury system, despite its weaknesses. “People need to be educated to see this not as a chore, but as a privilege that the Government and court had called on you to make a decision.”

He also thought the remuneration system needed to be adjusted to ensure workers were not losing money.

Of the 220,363 Kiwis summonsed for jury duty in the past financial year, 124,635 either excused or deferred themselves from service, the majority doing so for work-related reasons. Other reasons included health, family commitments, personal circumstance and religious beliefs.

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Nigel Hampton, QC, said the “alarming” number of excusals was "devaluing" the system. In the past few decades, he believed there had been a “concerning growth” towards the unemployed and retired making up juries, which meant the system could be "distorted".

With nearly 50 years' legal experience, he said there were many factors to blame, including the possibility opt-out excuses were too readily accepted.

Law Society spokesman Jonathan Krebs said the “surprisingly high” excusal figures raised concerns. He would have estimated the number of excusals to be 10-55 per cent. “It might be time for us, or the Government, to look at the rules surrounding the circumstances on which you can be excused."

An inquiry into whether there was genuine consideration of a juror's application for excusal, or if it was being "rubber stamped", would be welcomed by the society. “The majority appear to be excused for business or work-related reasons, a sector it would probably be useful to have included,” he said.

“Whether it has an effect on the process of getting to the result is difficult to say, but with those sort of figures, clearly juries are not as representative of our society as we would like them to be.”

- © Fairfax NZ News

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