Don’t hang the jury
In a perfect world, justice would be swift. Right and wrong would be black and white. Good people would feel protected by the law and bad people would go to jail. In reality, crimes like murder and rape are as complicated as they are common. Sound verdicts take time.
So a Sydney judge’s suggestion to do away with juries in these cases, in the interests of efficiency, presents serious risk to the way we understand and trust the law.
Speed in these decisions risks poor judgement. Worse, it can destroy people’s lives.
According to The Daily Telegraph, Justice Peter McClellan, who has recently presided over the appeals of both Jeffrey Gilham and Gordon Wood; said the increasingly complex nature of criminal cases are resulting in longer trials, at great expense to both the juror and the state.
His solution: Replace juries with a panel of up to three judges to avoid “perplexity” and be “less time consuming.” Words we’re more likely to associate with supermarket aisles or a busy commute than the cornerstones of our justice system.
Criminal cases are complex for jurors. But the majority of this complexity arises from the enormous responsibility of their decisions. Murder and rape cases raise questions about how we define acceptable social behaviour; what we do and do not accept and who we do and do not trust to be part of our society. In other words, they’re making decisions that affect the relative safety of us all.
Replacing jurors with a panel of judges will not make this job easier. Or less complicated. A socially responsible verdict requires strong community representation and to achieve this, balance is imperative.
Jurors bring commonsense and real-life touch points to the law. While judges and lawyers can be overly technical, the familiarity of the truck driver, the nurse, the school teacher or the business person help win our trust in the law. If we recognise ourselves in the people making the decision, then we are more likely to accept and understand it.
The jury is also fundamental to the victim’s experience of a criminal trial. According to John Hinchey, the ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner the jury helps victims of crime to recover. Not only does the jurors’ presence make it easier for the victims to follow the process of the trial - because the legalese is broken down into layman’s language - it also helps them to accept the decision, as they can see it is representative of the broader society.
“Juries give people a sense that a fair and balanced verdict should be reached,” he told The Punch.
Another way to think about this is to put yourself in those shoes. Imagine it was you on trial for murder. Or worse, close to a victim of it. Who would you trust to hold your life in their hands? A panel of judges, who’ve seen your case and possibly worse many times before? Or twelve individuals from different walks of life, ready to debate the facts?
Hard choice, huh? It’s almost an impossible divide. The law can be blind to a lot of the grey areas of life while the human experience can bring insight, empathy, emotion and understanding. The best and most equitable system of justice utilises both.
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