Editorial: Celebrating jurors
It's really a commonsensical decision for the justice ministry to authorise an increase in the daily stipend handed to jurors who help to decide cases in the nation's civil and criminal courts. It is something of a national disgrace that it has taken all of 10 years to move from $500 to $2,000.
The increase in stipend is hopefully a signal that the administration will now focus on the long-overdue reform of jury service, which is an essential part of our jury system. Our jury system was founded on the idea that a jury of one's peers is the best decider of truth. Thomas Jefferson described the jury system as "the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution".
A jury comprises a random mix of individuals who are representative of society and who are deemed capable of understanding the evidence presented in court and applying their common sense to arrive at a fair decision. The judicial system works best when regular folk get involved by being a part of the jury pool.
While the increase in daily stipend may be helpful in assisting those who serve to defray expenses associated with attending court daily, what will make a difference is the result in the courts. Increasingly, serious cases have had to be postponed repeatedly because there are not enough jurors to serve on a panel. Of course, some may be disqualified because of age, or other reasons.
In the reforms being considered, we would urge the minister to take a hard look at the number of pre-emptory challenges which are allowed by the court to lawyers representing the defence and appearing on behalf of the prosecution.
In murder cases, there are seven pre-emptory challenges allowed the defence and prosecution for each accused. This means a juror can be rejected without any reason being given. The matter of challenges eats up many hours and slows the process considerably. Some persons have argued that a great deal of time and money could be saved if there were fewer challenges allowed. It would also mean that the available pool of jurors could be more effectively used to try cases instead of sitting around after being 'challenged'.
Some persons see jury duty as a nuisance and will concoct excuses to avoid it. For professionals, jury duty means being away from the job for a fortnight or so, and it is understandable that they may be reluctant to serve.
One of the factors that influence many persons from serving as jurors is ignorance of what they are required to do and how important a task is being assigned to them. There is definitely a need for public education to explain the importance of doing this civic duty when summoned to do so.
Another area of reform that needs urgent attention is the punishment for refusing to submit to jury duty. We believe the fines should be substantially increased so they serve as a deterrent for those who deliberately avoid duty.
Persons who shirk their civic duty and avoid serving as jurors should spare a thought for accused persons languishing in jail and who are unable to get their cases tried, and for the victims who have to wait for a very long time to get justice.
In the name of justice, do not shirk your civic duty.