Editorial: Juries are a vital part of our system

Last updated 05:00 07/11/2012
jury stand
Juries are a vital part of the judicial system.

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OPINION: Judge David Wilson's call for judges, instead of juries, to hear complex drug trials is understandable, but ultimately misplaced.

His annoyance and frustration at having to abort a drugs trial after three weeks because a third juror withdrew from the case because of health issues was the catalyst for his comments.

Few could blame him for his reaction, but that is exactly what it is, a reaction to a specific circumstance.

As always, the underlying, fundamental reasoning behind jury trials should prevail, rather than reacting to an exception.

It is a basic tenet of the justice system that any defendant on a serious charge has the right to be tried before "twelve good men and true".

That has its origins in the 17th century, and was obviously updated to include women about 100 years ago, but the principle remains the same.

There are several good reasons for that. The state, through its various arms, is usually the entity bringing the charges, and is the prosecuting agency.

Judges are also appointed by the state and although neutral and impartial by definition, the perception that the government could become "judge, jury and executioner", as the old saying goes, is not a healthy one.

If the defendant chooses a judge-only option, that is his or her choice and is entirely different. It is not an option imposed on them by an omnipotent legal system.

The jury system is a vital part of our judicial system and takes the potentially ultimate power in the process away from the state and places it in the hands of the community through its 12 representatives.

That is appropriate and a principle we must be careful to maintain.

Judge Wilson backs up his argument by citing the amount of time invested by lawyers and the court time involved.

He goes on to say that there are aspects of trials that include a lot of detailed evidence gleaned from sustained surveillance and jurors could be forgiven for not being able to absorb and ultimately sift through masses of evidence.

That may be so, but surely that is the challenge the prosecution faces: to be able to show, in a transparent and understandable fashion, the evidence they have against a defendant.

If it cannot be understood or grasped by a jury of the defendant's peers, then maybe the judge should be looking elsewhere to lay the blame, rather than drastically overhaul a system that has worked well for centuries.

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If Judge Wilson had railed against the number of good citizens who find a way to avoid serving on a trial, he may well have been on more fertile ground.

It is not uncommon for large firms to have pre-written letters available for staff to send in to the courts so they don't have to honour their jury duty.

The jury system relies on everyone in the community doing their bit and that is a responsibility we all bear.

As a system, it may well be imperfect, but along with democracy, it's the best we have.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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