'No, Mr Minister' - Defence lawyers reject proposal to reduce jurors in non-capital murder cases
Barbara Gayle, Justice Coordinator
Defence lawyers are gearing up for a battle with the Government over the proposal announced by Justice Minister Mark Golding to reduce the number of jurors in murder cases which do not attract the death penalty from 12 to seven.
"It is scandalous. We cannot tolerate that, it is a shortcut approach to the problem," declared prominent Queen's Counsel Howard Hamilton, as he argued that a jury with 12 of their peers is the last bastion for persons accused of murder.
With the courts facing a huge backlog of cases and a low turnout of persons summoned for jury duty being one of the issues causing delays in the system, the reduction in the number of jurors is being seen as a possible fix to the problem.
Director of Public Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn, QC, who backs the proposal, has argued that the prosecutors, who have to function in the circuit courts, are "right there in the trenches", having to face the difficulty every day when they go on circuit with more than 100 cases.
According to Llewellyn, on many occasions only 20 jurors, at the most 30, will turn up. "It's very, very disheartening and it contributes to the backlog."
But Hamilton countered this argument as he told The Sunday Gleaner: "What they must do if they want to tackle the problem is to get civil servants to serve as jurors."
He pointed out that in England jurors were taken from the civil service, and argued that if this is introduced in Jamaica it could improve the quality of jurors. That position was echoed by attorney-at-law Lloyd McFarlane who called on the Government to move speedily with the reform of the Jury Act and remove the exemption that bans public servants from serving as jurors.
Attorney-at-law Bert Samuels is strongly opposed to any move to reduce the number of jurors.
"The reduction is the first milestone on the journey to do away with the jury system. I think the system gets inclusive with the participation of the people in the judicial process and I strongly oppose it," declared Samuels.
"The myth that people are not willing to serve is being spread by those who want trial by judge only. The collective wisdom of 12 Jamaicans is superior to seven or that of a single judge," added Samuels, as he argued that the Taxpayer Registration Number (TRN) list and the voters' list are adequate to find Jamaicans to participate in the jury system.
Fellow attorney Dianne Jobson is also adamant that reducing the number of jurors is not the solution,
"They already have a majority verdict so I don't think they need to change it to try to get the number reduced," Jobson told The Sunday Gleaner.
For attorney-at-law Michael Lorne, the proposal should be discarded immediately.
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"When a life has been taken and a man is accused of it, the seriousness of it should not be underestimated and, therefore, life should be tried by 12 minds," said Lorne, as attorney-at-law and opposition senator, Tom Tavares Finson, agreed.
According to Tavares Finson, the answer is not to reduce the number of jurors but to fix the system and process by which jurors are summoned.
"The move seems to be symbolic of doing things in the name of expediency without due consideration as to how the shortage of jurors can be addressed in other fashions, such as expanding the qualification by which persons are eligible to become jurors," declared attorney-at-law Peter Champagnie.
"The people need to be educated about the importance of jury duty. It is a national responsibility; there should be a sense of civic and national pride in serving as a juror to protect and enhance the justice system, which in any nation is sacred to the protection of human rights, freedom and liberty of all Jamaicans," declared Alando Terrelonge.
The attorney, who is set to represent the Jamaica Labour Party in the next general election, argued that rather than reducing the number of jurors the Government should fix the issues affecting the low turnout of persons called to jury duty.