Monday, 22 January 2024
Rushed majority verdicts a risk under proposed jury changes
Proposed changes to jury laws designed to contribute to a fairer and more efficient justice system, include a proposal that risks reducing an important safeguard for majority verdicts.
President of the Law Society of NSW Brett McGrath said while the NSW Government’s Jury Amendment Bill 2023 proposes mostly common sense reforms, significant concerns remain.
“There can be few, if any, more important duties a citizen has than sitting on a jury. Yet a proposal to halve the amount of time before a jury can be excused from delivering a unanimous verdict represents an erosion of the importance of the jury’s role in our justice system,” Mr McGrath said.
“The stakes for both defendants and the state could not be higher than in a jury trial. Both the defendant’s liberty and the state’s interest in enforcing the law hang in the balance.”
At present, the Jury Act 1977 requires a criminal trial jury to sit for at least eight hours before a court can permit them to reach a ‘majority verdict’ (in which a single juror’s opposing view can be disregarded). Cases in which more than one juror cannot agree to a verdict, after appropriate judicial encouragement, result in ‘hung juries’.
The Law Society’s submission to the Legislative Council’s Inquiry into the proposed changes to the Act advises that the rationale for the eight hour minimum has not changed since the measure was introduced in 2006.
“The then Attorney General Bob Debus was right when he told the Parliament that an eight hour minimum compels a jury to deliberate ‘for more than one court day’ before it’s directed that it can return a majority verdict,” Mr McGrath said.
“Given the grave consequences that can flow from a jury verdict, this period should remain the very least that a jury is required to consider often complex evidence, to deliver their decision unanimously. A mere four hours is insufficient.
“Judges have the discretion to require juries to deliberate for longer periods, but reducing the minimum time to four hours carries the risk that juries will rush to a verdict in cases where a person’s liberty is a stake. That outcome would be anathema to the right to a trial by jury.”
Mr McGrath welcomed the scrutiny of the Jury Amendment Bill by NSW Parliament’s upper house and the opportunity for the solicitors on the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee to express their expert views on the legislation.
“The Law Society supports reforms that strike the right balance between an individual’s right to a fair trial and an efficient justice system, as do most of the amendments proposed in this Bill. We will also speak up when proposed reforms pose avoidable risks to the administration of justice,” Mr McGrath said.
Damien Smith | Director, Media and Public Relations
The Law Society of New South Wales
M: +61 417 788 947 | E: Damien.Smith@lawsociety.com.au