Bert Samuels | Crucifixion of trial by jury
With the exception of treason, murder is the most serious of all criminal offences in Jamaica. In my 38 years of practice, I have witnessed only one case of treason.
The time-honoured and sacred principle - that serious offences attracting severe punishment must be 'tried' by our peers acting as jurors, under the guidance of a trained High Court judge - is now under siege. Using the 'huge case backlog' as an excuse for dismantling trial by jury is akin to a parent who has failed to discipline his child and, when 'him bruk out', seeks to abdicate primary responsibility and pass him on to others for adoption.
We have failed to address the backlog problem and now the sacrificial lamb is the jury system, transferring it to a judge's single pair of hands, sitting alone for gun-related murder matters!
Goodbye to the days when trial by jury was sacred in murder cases. We have not built sufficient courtrooms. The courts are understaffed. We have created multiple new offences, without expanding the justice machinery to accommodate trying them.
We have refused to increase the number of judges, or remit overdue pay increases until their threat to take court action was imminent. We have failed to increase allowances to jurors. We have failed to use the more comprehensive TRN list, in addition to the voters' list, from which to summon jurors. And the failures continue.
To fix this deteriorating neglect, euphemistically called 'the backlog of cases', our elected servants have now resorted to a quick fix - to trample on our rights to trial by our peers.
The first step was to reduce the jury's number from 12 to seven, and finally, their true intentions are now in the open, as they seek to take it to zero! Whereas the judge's trained mind is superior on the law, it is without doubt that the collective wisdom of the jury, on the affairs of men, far surpasses the experience of any one judge.
The removal of the jury en bloc, using any conceivable rationale, does not respectfully fit into the spirit of Section 48 of the Constitution, which declares that our Parliament may make "... laws for the peace, order and good government of Jamaica".
Let me remind Jamaicans of the words of Lord Diplock, in the case of Hinds v Queen: "A breach of a constitutional restriction is not excused by the good intentions with which the legislative power has been exceeded by the particular law."
To fool ourselves that we will reduce the murder rate by throwing out the jury with the bath water will certainly come back to haunt us, as that which we cast out happens to be one of the fundamental pillars of the justice system, and of our treasured democracy.
It is my considered view that the reduction of, and Parliament's subsequent dispensing with, the jury are symptomatic of the fundamental mistrust our representatives have in the people of Jamaica. If we are capable of voting for, and electing, a government, why cannot we be similarly trusted and respected to cast a vote for the guilt or innocence of our peers?