Thu | Jul 18, 2024

Editorial | More on juries, please

Published:Friday | May 24, 2024 | 12:06 AM

While it may still be insufficient to offset the cost of contributing a day’s worth of civic service in the courts, the 200 per cent increase – to J$6,000 per day – in the stipend that jurors will now receive is clearly a move in the right direction.

It will hopefully lead to the more frequent and prompt impanelling of juries, a faster disposition of cases, thus a more timely delivery of justice – which is one of the precepts upon which a worthy judicial system stands.

Yet, while The Gleaner welcomes the new stipend announced this week by the justice minister, Delroy Chuck, we are surprised and disappointed that his statement to Parliament offered nothing more on his ideas and plans for the reform of the jury system. Which was probably merely an oversight, in which case the omission will be rectified in short order and the public invited to fulsomely debate the matter.

As Mr Chuck observed – with great understatement – Jamaica’s jury system faces “challenges”.

Like common law jurisdictions, the statutory default in Jamaica is for most indictable offences to be tried by juries, except for treason, categories of murder where the death sentence is applicable, as well as some crimes involving the use of guns, or membership in organised gangs. However, prosecutors and defendants can, by agreement in writing to the judge, opt for bench trials.

Put another way, Jamaica’s Constitution has no specific requirement for trial by ‘a jury of one’s peers’. Its insistence is for people charged with crimes to be “afforded a fair hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial court established by law”.

SHORTAGE OF JURORS

Mostly, accused persons choose jury trials. But as The Gleaner has noted several times in these columns in recent times, it is not uncommon for cases to be delayed because of a shortage of jurors. In one recent example, of the 4,500 summons for jurors issued by the Supreme Court for its Michaelmas session in Kingston, only 2.8 per cent turned up.

The long-standing and generalised reluctance to perform jury duty has been blamed on factors ranging from disregard for civic obligations, to the sheer economic inability of many people to serve. They can’t afford the cost of transportation to and from court, or to feed themselves over the several days, or weeks, of a trial.

It is this element of the problem that Mr Chuck’s stipend hike is aimed at addressing.

However, there are other issues to be considered, including the myriad groups exempt from jury duty, including anyone 70 or over, civil servants, teachers, university lecturers, doctors, a range of other health professionals and parsons. If the jury system is to remain in place, these loopholes, this newspaper believes, must be closed, or at least severely narrowed.

So, too, should the easy pass that is often allowed to upper and middle class professionals, whose bosses or health providers regularly vouch for their inability to attend court, leaving jury panels, as Chief Justice Bryan Sykes noted, heavily skewed towards “fishermen, domestic helpers, practical nurses, and so on”.

Justice Sykes’ comment wasn’t a statement about the merits of this group of people, but rather an observation of who “turn(s) up” and the dysfunction it creates in the jury system.

END JURY SYSTEM

Against this backdrop, the chief justice has been campaigning for an end to the jury system, to be replaced by trials by judges only. Justice Sykes has argued that accused persons would lose nothing from this move, given that the data show a higher rate of acquittal when cases are tried by judges alone, rather than with juries.

Earlier this month, Mr Chuck promised to take Justice Sykes’ concern to the Cabinet and to have a joint select committee of Parliament “to listen to the varying views as to how we can improve the jury system, or, if it can’t be improved, to remove it, as the chief justice has argued”.

We read into Mr Chuck’s silence on the matter in Parliament this week a lack of urgency on this aspect of judicial reform. The minister, however, should prove us wrong.