Monday, April 04, 2011

O'Sullivan on the Urewera 18

Last week, the Court of Appeal upheld the ruling of the High Court denying the Urewera 18 a jury trial. Media coverage of the ruling has been thin, largely because the exact reasoning is suppressed (and so cannot be criticised in the media). But on Saturday, the Herald's Fran O'Sullivan weighed in, calling it "a major offence to New Zealand's proud human rights record":

[T]he fact that the trial will take more than 20 days is not a sufficiently credible reason for a judge to stop the accused from being tried in front of a jury. Nor would it be credible to claim that this case is imbued with such complexity that a layman jury could not reach a decision on the basis of the accused's response to the Crown's evidence.

At its heart, the Urewera 18 case is not complex. It is being made complex by the prosecution's apparent drive to retrofit the case so that the police can use what was initially deemed illegally gained evidence to bolster their submissions.

A judge-alone trial might make sense where a layman jury would struggle if it had to pick its way through complex evidence in a criminal commercial trial (particularly where defendants have relied on butt-covering legal advice to justify dubious board decisions).

But even then it is possible a jury might well apply more commonsense than a judge whose training will have imbued him/her with the notion that senior commercial players have a "right" to rely on advice.


Trial by jury is a long-standing right which must continue to be valued. And in a high-profile trial like this one a jury is better placed to ensure public accountability.

And this is what this basically boils down to: public accountability over our justice system in an extremely high-profile and politicised case. The Court of Appeal's decision denies us that accountability, and in doing so undermines the credibility of the entire trial. And regardless of whether you think the accused are innocent or guilty, that ought to be cause for concern.

Like O'Sullivan, I think this needs to be appealed to the Supreme Court in the public interest. The right to trial by jury is fundamental. The government should not be allowed to undermine it so casually without a fight.