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Garth Rattray | Jury trial conundrum

Published:Monday | March 27, 2023 | 12:07 AM
Dr Garth Rattray writes: Until the problems with jury duty are looked at seriously, allotted time for public education and resolved, the situation will not improve.
Dr Garth Rattray writes: Until the problems with jury duty are looked at seriously, allotted time for public education and resolved, the situation will not improve.

Despite the Government’s efforts, there remains a critical shortage of jurors. Over the years, I have witnessed the reactions of many citizens who are called for jury duty. Except for the few who are easily able and very willing to serve as jurors, citizens recoil and fly into stark panic when they are called up. Some even cry, become overtly anxious, lose sleep, and feel despondent.

No matter how much they complain to me, I only sign the medical excuse forms for those who are genuinely suffering from documented physical and/or psychological (mental) problems that render them temporarily or permanently unsuitable for jury duty. I encourage the rest of those seeking a way out to either present themselves for jury selection or explain their situation to the court.

Instead of covertly believing that jury duty dodgers are unpatriotic, selfish, lazy or pusillanimous, I think that more credence and sympathy need to be given to their difficulties, and fears. Until the problems with jury duty are looked at seriously, allotted time for public education and resolved, the situation will not improve. Many people express dread of anything to do with the “courthouse”. Additionally, because Jamaica is small, because there is little respect for life, and because violence is used to solve many problems, citizens don’t want to expose themselves to potential harm from the accused, or his/her friends, accomplices, henchmen, family, or whatever. They fear for themselves and for their family.

I can’t recall seeing or hearing that jurors have been harmed. Witnesses are more likely to be at risk for standing up to their civic duty. Because of problems with the judicial system in general, and with attaining jurors and witnesses, true justice is sometimes delayed or elusive. These are some of the reasons for extrajudicial killings, mob killings, some mysterious murders, and murder for hire that we see very often. Citizens simply do not trust ‘the system’ to protect them and to provide ‘justice’. Consequently, when some individuals want justice, they find alternate [illegal] means.

HUGE PROBLEM

A huge problem with serving jury duty is financial survival. Most Jamaicans are struggling just to make ends meet. If a peanut vendor in Half-Way-Tree, a tradesman, or a shopkeeper is called upon to perform his/her civic duty and present his/herself for jury selection and duty, who will replace the essential earnings needed for that individual or [dependent] family to survive?

Most Jamaicans are existing from hand to mouth. They tell me, “Jury duty can’t pay JPS, or the Water Commission.” They ask, “Who will buy credit for the cellphone? Who will earn the money for food, rent, medicine, school fees, books, clothes and shoes?” The vast majority of citizens earn active incomes. If they do not work, they do not earn, and some are living on the crumbling edge of destitution. Their sacrifice may be nothing short of catastrophic.

Jury duty stipends are not meant to replace earnings, but when they don’t work, can the stipend provided by the State pay for transport to and from the courthouse and for a decent lunch? In today’s Jamaica, these things are no longer considered trivial expenses; they consume significant funds because our purchases are priced based on the US dollar (plus several taxes and mark-ups), but our earnings are in (weak) Jamaican dollars.

Then there are the better-off citizens who are summoned for jury duty. Several of them are self-employed businesspeople (active income-earners) who employ staff, pay a myriad of taxes, including quarterly returns on estimated earnings, and they also have significant overhead expenses. They haemorrhage financially when forced to spend time away from work. Many others are employees and, even if their employer(s) are able to bear the financial burden of their sacrifice, they also harbour fears regarding their personal safety and the safety of their family.

The problems for our system of justice, regarding sufficient citizens serving as jurors, appear to be headed into the direction of doing away with jury trials. I vividly recall that a good friend of mine, now a retired Supreme Court judge, has always advocated bench trials. And it appears as if our current chief justice is also leaning towards that direction.

NOT IN FAVOUR

However, an indeterminate number of defence attorneys are not in favour of bench trials because they are of the opinion that it is better for them to present their case to a panel of jurors than it is to a judge. Obviously, a group lends itself to being swayed in a given direction, or of being hopelessly confused (let’s be frank here); while one person, especially if learned, might prove difficult to convince one way or the other.

From the point of view of our citizenry, they see judges as very educated and intelligent people. But they also see them as human beings. People harbour gnawing concerns that judges might be biased, and that a plurality of his/her so-called peers is less capable of manifesting individual/personal biases. Others believe that their social status might be a liability, and that outside influences might help to guide an individual judge.

When it comes to increasing the number of citizens willing and able to serve as jurors, complaining about and possibly pressuring citizens will prove counterproductive. Extensive public education and socio-economic support (by way of adding transport passes and food vouchers/stamps to the stipend) and enhanced security near the courts could be considered.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garthrattray@gmail.com.