Valrie Neita-Robertson: Jury Act revision a danger to justice
Politicians on both sides are busy falling over each in their efforts to demonstrate who loves 'poor people' more.
While this is going on, the citizens of Jamaica are left unprotected in a system of justice that has serious shortcomings and needs more checks and balances.
I speak of the recent amendments to the Jury Act that came upon us like a thief in the night. This new legislation was voted on and ratified by the parliamentarians who woo the electorate every five years for their precious votes, and the Senate, which comprises so many legal minds, some of whom practise at the criminal Bar and are aware of the shortcomings that the criminal Bar faces daily.
Persons now charged for non-capital murder will be tried by a jury of seven persons and each person charged has a challenge of four persons. The majority verdict of five to two determines an accused's freedom.
How can this be just in a system in which it is not unknown for jurors to be bribed or influenced to deliver verdicts? Is it not now easier to do this with seven as against 12? How can this be just in a system in which persons complain that they are never recalled to serve if a guilty verdict is not delivered, or, as in a recent case, some jurors are asked to serve several times in a one-year period when the designated period of service is once every three years.
How can this be just when defence attorneys have no knowledge of the process of selection of persons who are to serve on a panel? How can this be just when the defence has no information on the persons who are selected to be on the panel or their background and, in particular, the area in which they live?
Do they come from the community in which the alleged offence is committed? Do they know the deceased or the deceased's family or friends and do they have a bias? Jury lists are no longer posted or made available for defence attorneys to carry out due diligence. Our clients are like lambs to the slaughter.
Defence attorneys in criminal matters have again been given 'basket to carry water'. The prosecutorial arm gets everything they ask for, and soon they will be given the right to appeal convictions when the soundness of the decisions they make are often questioned. Remember the Irwin rape case?
There is no transparency and no balance woven into the new legislation, for example, by providing for polling of each juror via questions designed to minimise bias and ensure objectivity on the part of jurors.
There have been, in the past, many complaints about shortage of jurors and it has been exhaustively suggested that one of the problems causing this shortage is that a singular department in the Jamaica Constable Force designated with the onerous task of serving 200-500 summonses for jurors. This was always an impossible task, especially when there is only one or two police personnel designated to serve, and one police vehicle assigned to travel the length and breadth of the parish to carry out the task of services.
Recommendations were made by attorneys and by a well-known task force that the process be carried out by a private company or, alternatively, that the summonses be divided among, for example, the 45 police stations in Kingston and St Andrew for service. The principle is that it is easier for 45 to serve 10 than for two to serve 400.
But alas, the solution chosen is to reduce the established and fundamental common-law principles of trial by 12 of our peers in serious matters such as murder. The writing is on the wall, and let it be clearly seen that trial by jurors in Jamaica is being whittled down. Among countries like Canada, the USA, France, Russia, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas and many more, Jamaica is the only country in which the 12-member jury of trials for murder has been reduced.
- Valerie Neita-Robertson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to email@example.com.