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The jury system – is it working? – Part 1

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The jury system has been criticized from time to time, but to date, there has been no constructive study which indicates that it is malfunctioning. Apart from the comments from two lawyers about the system being too expensive, there has been no public discourse in SVG about its performance.{{more}} Belize and a few countries where racial tensions exist have abandoned the system, but else where, it has stood the test of time. In this article, I will discuss some important features of the system, with a view to assessing its effectiveness.

SVG inherited its jury system from England during the colonial period and when we became independent, it continued to be an important feature of our laws. In England, this system was seen as a symbol of liberty, and in the year 1215, it was enshrined in the Magna Carta, the charter of liberties, to protect the people against state power. It relies on the belief that persons should be judged by their own peers, who would better understand the factual situation. This may be the single most important reason for its staying power over the ages. The word “peers” suggests equality, as a citizen of the land, or contemporaries, and not peers on the basis of social class, age or gender.

A jury consists of a group of 9 or 12 persons who are chosen to decide on the guilt of an accused, on the basis of the evidence in a criminal matter in the High Court. This is done under the guidance of a judge, who is responsible for overseeing the points of law. Hence the jury is regarded as the arbiter of facts, while the judge is the arbiter of law. Jurors are chosen in accordance with the law. To be eligible, a person must be between the ages of 18 and 60 years, must not be disqualified by a criminal record and must not fall in the exempted group.

The jury system in SVG cannot be criticized for non-performance. It has both convicted offenders and set innocent persons free. There has been no public outcry or evidence to suggest that the jury system has failed. Neither the government nor the taxpayers have complained about the expenses. The expenses incurred for jurors are lunches on the days when they sit on a case, dinner if they are working on a decision that goes beyond 6 p.m. and a small allowance at the end of the assizes. This is certainly not an unreasonable price for justice.

I do not doubt that there are certain weaknesses associated with the jury system. Although there are many who are proud to serve, it is difficult to find a large pool of jurors. Some jurors find it inconvenient to leave their jobs, especially when it means that their usual work will accumulate in their absence. One would recall the chaos in the Newton Spence case when one of the jurors, on her insistence, was relieved of her duty to proceed on vacation while the case was in progress. Because our system does not provide for alternate jurors, the accused had a ground for appeal. Others resent the sense of uncertainty and inconvenience when trials run late and they have to make alternative arrangements for themselves or children. The system is not able to tap into the pool of senior personnel because many cannot afford to leave their posts. The situation is similar for sole owners of businesses. The exemption of a large section of the population, for example, government workers, robs the system of the intelligent contribution that such a group could make. Are these irritants serious enough to give cause for abandonment of the system? Does a judge’s training make him superior to a jury as the arbiter of facts? To be continued next week.

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.
E-mail address is: exploringthelaw@yahoo.com

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