Monday, May 18, 2009

In defence of juries

Over the weekend, Justice Minister Simon Power floated the idea of doing away with jury trials in most cases in order to save money. It's an absolutely appalling idea, which would strip our justice system of a vital protection, and paradoxically lead to even more court time being wasted on appeals over whether the accused received a fair trial or not.

At the moment, anyone accused of an offence carrying a penalty of more than three months imprisonment can elect to be tried by a jury as of right. Simon Power wants to raise that threshold to three years. Among the crimes which would fall below the new threshold are common assault, childbeating, domestic violence, low-level theft and drug possession - the bread and butter of the court system. This move would reduce the number of jury trials by around a thousand cases a year - 60% of the total. But what we'd save in money and time, we'd lose in justice - and in public trust in the outcome.

Juries exist for two reasons. The first is to examine the facts, on the grounds that twelve pairs of eyes are better than one. The second is to ensure that the police and prosecution have done their job properly and prevent abuses of power. They are there essentially as a bullshit-detector - a vital protection in a democratic society. Limiting the right to trial by jury is thus a fundamental assault on our human rights. And no amount of money can justify it. If Power is truly concerned about delays in the court system, he should resource it properly to cope with demand, not undermine our human rights in the name of "efficiency".

Correction: clarified jury trial threshold.