EDITORIAL - Revamp jury system now
Justice Gloria Smith's lament about the dilemma facing the justice system, relating to the shortage of jurors, has been repeated often enough by members of the judiciary for us to believe that we are approaching a crisis situation in our courts.
Faced once again with multiple murder accused and too few jurors to try the case, the senior puisne judge has suggested that the law may have to be changed to allow cases to be tried without the help of jurors. The judges' frustration was bared in the story titled 'Courts running out of jurors' in Tuesday's edition. Justice Smith is not the only one. Over the years, we have heard similar cries of frustration from the Bench. Indeed, it is a decades-old problem which has got progressively worse because jury service has never been placed at the centre of national discourse.
But the framers of our Constitution knew enough about injustices when they instituted trial by jury as a safeguard, and they created a situation where a jury of one's peers was expected to use conscience and understanding of life and cultural norms to judge the law and its application, as well as the facts of a case, and then arrive at an impartial verdict.
Population education necessary
Thomas Jefferson, revered as the author of the American Declaration of Independence, had this to say about trial by jury: "I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution."
Trial by a judge alone is not the answer but will likely result if the jury system is allowed to die. It means that an accused person will lose an important safeguard and be exposed to the oppression of the powers that be.
We support Justice Smith's call for a programme to educate the population on the importance of discharging one's civic duty by participating in jury service. Not only is a citizen who serves as a juror contributing to protecting the rights and liberties of his peer, such service gives an individual a unique opportunity to see the justice system at work, warts and all.
Over the years, there has been a marked decline in the number of persons who have been willing to undertake jury duty. Those who are not able to find creatively deceptive ways of getting out of it simply refuse to turn up for court.
Series of reforms
Repeated calls for action should have by now ushered in a series of reforms in the process of selecting jurors. For example, are there specific categories of workers who are now exempt from jury duty, and should this exclusion be revisited?
Any conversation about jury duty must also include compensation. For the employed, it is not a problem because the law stipulates that employees must be paid while carrying out this duty. However, for those who are retired, or jobless, the stipend is pitiful and our research indicates that it takes several months for the money to be paid.
As well, jury service can be very frustrating because cases get stalled when witnesses are absent. Police witnesses are among the regular offenders. It is not unusual for the jury pool to remain idle while prosecution and defence argue fine points of law. What looks like a simple case can turn into weeklong affairs. Much time is wasted waiting for lawyers, witnesses and sometimes accused persons to arrive for court.
If we are to preserve the jury system, we need a total revamp. It needs to be replaced by a system in which jury service is seen as a pleasurable duty instead of an onerous task.
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