Editorial: More flexible jury system a welcome step

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Photo / Richard Robinson
Photo / Richard Robinson

Many people grumble about the shortcomings of the legal system. When, however, they are asked to play their part by serving on a jury, a large number want nothing to do with it. The statistics are bleak.

Last year, about 62 per cent, or 199,760 of the 321,832 people plucked at random from the electoral roll and summoned for jury service, were excused. A further 21 per cent (67,938) failed to turn up. Trial by jury is a cornerstone of the legal system but, clearly, it does not inspire a huge sense of civic duty.

What it has inspired are fertile imaginations, the products of which have allowed many to be excused jury service on the flimsiest of grounds. More prosaically, large numbers have got off because they cannot take time off work, need to care for family members or are in poor health.

The consequence is a legal system that struggles to live up to the dictum of people being tried by a jury of their peers. They stand not so much before a cross-section of society but before those who have nothing much better to do with their time.

Thin on the ground among the jury ranks are people from professional or business backgrounds and the young.

It is therefore timely for the Government to act. Under new rules, people summoned for jury service will be able to defer their attendance to a time within the next 12 months that fits more conveniently with their personal or job responsibilities. This brings a welcome degree of flexibility to the system, and could also negate some people's need to find an excuse.

Also, jury districts have been extended from 30km to 45km from a trial courthouse, thus increasing the eligible jury pool and meaning people are less likely to be summoned frequently, especially in smaller districts.

Justice Minister Simon Power is optimistic about the impact of these new arrangements. He says he has "a very high degree of confidence that people want to do their civic duty and serve on a jury". The doleful statistics suggest, however, there may be a deep-seated attitudinal issue.

Many clearly feel the uncertainty over how big a chunk jury service will take from their lives - whenever they offer their time - is a more significant consideration than their civic responsibility. Amending that viewpoint is a difficult proposition, although the Government will help by providing easier access to a range of information about jury service and what being a juror involves.

There are other potential remedies, but none is particularly appealing. One is sterner penalties for those who fail to turn up for jury service without good cause. The current fine is $1000. If this were rigorously enforced, there might be an impact. The fact that 21 per cent of jurors failed to turn up last year suggests not only is this not happening but that the penalty is not a deterrent.

Some employers also undoubtedly make it hard for their staff to do jury service. This could be addressed more stringently, but it may be difficult to make inroads as long as many employees are as resistant to jury service as their employers. More might be inclined to serve if there was the carrot of increased fees and allowances for jurors. That, however, is not a realistic option in the present economic climate.

If further action is required, it should probably flow from another statistic, which reveals that, in recent years, only about 2500 people annually have had their excuses for getting out of jury service declined.

Given the overall success rate, their reasons must have been truly outlandish. Now that flexibility has been introduced, the next step, if needed, could impose a tighter rein on people's imagination. Being excused from jury service should be the exception, not the rule.

- NZ Herald

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