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Is it time for the jury system to be abolished

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Fri May 2, 2014

Editor: Several prominent legal luminaries in the region are calling for abolishment of jury trials. I have not heard any official call from the St Vincent Bar Association, but I am aware of the fact that a few defence lawyers feel that the age-old trial by jury should be removed.

In the time of Edward III in the 11th century, by the law of land, jury system had been substituted by due process of law, which in those times was a trial by 12 peers. The Magna Carta of 1215 further secured trial by jury and this was handed down and practised in the BVI and all Commonwealth countries and territories.

However, a few countries abolished the jury system, including South Africa as long ago as 1969 and this was not known by many persons until the trial of the well known Olympic medallist, Oscar Pistorius, who is charged with the murder of his girlfriend. Coming closer to home, Belize abolished trial by jury in murder cases and attempted murder cases. Four years ago, Guyanese born Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, who presided and decided the first criminal case, found a young man guilty of shooting and attempting to kill a senior counsel, Rodney Williams, who is the law partner of the country’s Prime Minister, Dean Barrow. Justice Benjamin found the accused guilty and sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment.

And a few months ago, Trinidad and Tobago Chief Justice Ivor Archie called for the jury system to be reviewed and introduce trial by judge. His comment was supported by two retired Chief Justices; Sharma and de la Bastide; the latter also served as the President of the Caribbean Court of Justice — the highest court of the land.

Over in Guyana, one of the country’s leading senior counsels, Ralph Ramkarran, who served as Speaker of Parliament, is advocating for the jury system to be abolished. In most of the Eastern Caribbean states as well as Jamaica, a few senior lawyers also see the need for single judges to determine criminal cases.

The advocates for the abolishment of the jury system are contending that there is no magic in the principle of trial by peers. It is an ancient system which has worked in many societies, particularly which have inherited the common law tradition. It is further argued that jury trial by peers is neither a constitutional nor a human right.

On the other hand, magistrates determine more than 90 per cent of the criminal cases without a jury, though those cases are not murders, manslaughter or attempted murder and other more serious offences, but in any event they have to adjudicate without a jury.

There is a disparity in the Jury Act in St Vincent and the Grenadines whereby the prosecution is at will to “stand down” as many jurors they wish, without showing cause, but the defence is only allowed to object to three without showing cause and thereafter have to give reasons if they want to object to more than three. The manner of selection of persons to serve as jurors is also being questioned.

Oscar Ramjeet

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