The paltry allowance of $500 a day offered to jurors is a fairly good indication of the level of importance attached to their role in Jamaica's justice system. The rate has not increased since 1998.
Concern over the disrespect meted out to jurors has been heard from time to time. Lack of proper sanitary convenience and parking facilities and long delays in receiving allowances are long-standing complaints. So instead of approaching the duty of juror as an important function of citizenship, many see this call to service as an intrusion into their daily lives and they try to avoid it.
Earlier this week, there was an impassioned plea on behalf of hungry jurors from the president of the Jamaican Bar Association, Mr Ian Wilkinson, which was supported by president of the Advocates Association, Mr George Soutar, QC.
The argument was made that hungry jurors could not be expected to concentrate on the evidence given in court or relied on to engage in proper deliberations when the case is turned over to the panel. That could result in a miscarriage of justice.
Taken a step further, one could argue further that a hungry jury could easily be tempted to take a bribe - in exchange for a favourable decision. The spectre of bribery among hungry jurors has even greater implications for the quality of justice in a country which is very low on the corruption index.
GUARD AGAINST CORRUPTION
We must be careful not to place our jurors in a situation where they could become influenced for the sake of lunch money. We must safeguard the credibility of the justice system, and that includes looking after the welfare of jurors.
Jurors are selected randomly from the electoral list and represent a cross section of the society. But more and more persons have found ways of wriggling out of this obligation, either by feigning illness or conjuring up imaginative reasons why they are unable to serve.
The result is that today, persons who submit to jury duty are either those who really have civic pride and are genuinely interested and see it as an honour to participate in the administration of justice, or those who do not have the savvy to escape service. Of course, there are the privileged minority who can afford to pay the fines for refusing to do jury service.
We have seen how cases have dragged on for years and remain clogged in the system because of juror shortage. And there have been suggestions to have more cases tried by judges without the assistance of a jury. It is important to note that in the United Kingdom, the Criminal Justice Act of 2003 allows for non-jury trials where jury tampering has taken place or is likely to happen. Is this where Jamaica is heading?
The whole concept of trial by jury, which was established by British law, was designed to give accused persons confidence that they were being tried by their peers acting as impartial decision makers.
If the current administrators see the jury system as an integral part of the judicial process going forward, there must be urgent initiatives to enhance the jury-service experience.
As a first step, the allowance should be immediately increased to a realistic level and should be promptly remitted at the end of the tour of duty.
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