Monday, December 21, 2009

Doing away with juries

Earlier in the year, Justice Minister Simon Power floated the idea of raising the threshold at which defendants can elect to be tried by jury from three months to three years - effectively doing away with jury trials for a host of offences. Now the government is pushing the idea further, publishing a draft bill [PDF] and discussion paper [PDF]. According to their figures, the move would eliminate around 40% of all jury trials, saving around $4 million a year, and freeing up court time for other cases, resulting in cheaper, speedier trials for all. You can hear the bureaucrats already: "it would be so much more efficient..."

But the gain in efficiency would come at the cost of justice. Juries are a vital element in our justice system, a bullshit detector which ensures the police do their job properly and prevents abuses of power by the state. Which is why 800 years ago the Magna Carta declared

No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.
In practice, we've created a distinction between "minor" and "serious" offences, the latter of which deserve jury trials while the former do not. And this points out the real flaw in the government's thinking: that a punishment of three year's jail is "minor". And this is simply bullshit. Even a short jail term handed out as a summary punishment can result in a loss of employment and severe financial stress (that’s simply on the practicalities, without considering the effects of the actual conviction). When you're talking years, then the sentence automatically becomes one of unemployment, and frequently one of relationship breakup as well.

If Power really thinks three years is "minor", he should put his money where his mouth is and volunteer to serve such a sentence. Then we can see whether he still thinks it when he gets out.