A call to duty

By Catherine Masters

File photo / Supplied.
File photo / Supplied.

International websites offer plenty of advice on how to get out of jury service but it seems the advice isn't needed in this country as New Zealanders have been avoiding sitting on trials well enough on their own.

This must stop, the Government says.

Of the 321,832 people called for jury service in this country last year, 199,760 were excused and another 67,938 failed to show up.

That means more than 80 per cent of people are avoiding their civic duty, leaving fewer than 20 per cent to carry the trial burden.

So far it has been pretty easy to write your own letter citing the reasons you can't attend or to get your employer to write a letter saying business will suffer if you disappear for a week or two on a jury.

It won't be so clearcut in the future, though, as the Government moves to make it easier to defer jury duty but harder to get out of completely.

You will have 12 months to find a more convenient time to attend - or face fines.

The fines system has not worked too well so far, however. We asked the Ministry of Justice how many people had been fined over the past three years - the answer was: one. It is likely fines of up to $1000 will be more forthcoming under the changes as fewer excusals are granted.

Minister of Justice Simon Power expects more people will do their jury service, though, because he thinks people really do want to perform their civic duty.

But the numbers - 80 per cent is a huge number of people avoiding jury service - read like we are a nation prone to shirking that duty.

Employers and staff told the Weekend Herald it's not this but the cost of attending a trial that mainly stops people from going along.

There is no legal requirement for employers to pay their staff member's wages while they are at court, but the rates of compensation paid by the Ministry of Justice while you are in a jury are low, though Power's office says there will be a review of the fee structure "in the medium term".

For some, the impact on their business would be dire if made to attend.

Paul Cheshire of Maraetai owns a small design and drafting business and says he flipped out when he received his last letter asking him to turn up for jury selection.

The letter had asked him to draw a map showing the shortest bus route to court to support a claim for travel expenses - but it also indicated the trial was expected to last three months. This would have been catastrophic for his business, he says.

He was in the middle of a big project and working more than 100 hours a week.

He agrees, to some extent, that serving on a jury is his civic duty, but not if it is going to be financially debilitating.

The chief executive of the Employers & Manufacturers Association, Alasdair Thompson, thinks the high rate of excusals could be linked to the fact New Zealand is a nation of small businesses and that may make it difficult to change the low turn-out for juries. Around 87 per cent of businesses employ four or fewer people, so running a company with one staff member missing can add a huge strain, he says. And at the other end of the spectrum, in big companies senior management who get called up and selected for a trial lasting two weeks or more also has a very serious impact on the business.

"If only people in positions who can easily take time off work are available for jury service, then you can argue that juries don't have a selection pool of the peers of the person who is appearing in court."

This raises the issue of fairness.

Warren Young of the Law Commission, which recommended the change, says it should make a substantial difference because it is important to widen the pool of available jurors.

Young says there is not enough information to draw any conclusions about whether small jury pools affect the outcome of trials but Auckland University associate law professor Scott Optican says he is really not sure a bigger pool makes for a fairer trial. It has always been assumed in common law, he says, that the larger and more representative the jury pool, the more likely you are to get a fair cross-section of the community and hence a fair trial.

But those two elements do not necessarily follow.

"Nor do I think a representative jury, whatever that means, is necessarily the most fair jury, so there may be reasons to not want to let people out of jury service but it's not so clear to me that those reasons ultimately have to do with the fairness of any particular jury panel that's picked."

Criminal lawyer and civil liberties advocate Michael Bott says the level of pay for serving on a jury is so low it's pathetic, and the Government is ignoring the bigger problem.

" If they paid a decent amount, people would probably turn up."

But a jury trial is a right, Bott says, and should not be removed for the sake of efficiencies.

"What that means is he [ Power] is trying to disentitle or block New Zealanders from the civic protection of trial by jury. So on one hand you've got New Zealanders who don't want to participate in jury trials because they get insufficient remuneration by the state, then on the other hand you get good-natured people who will do their best and put up with the economic sacrifice to sit on a jury, and then you have a government who are trying to rob New Zealanders of the birthright of their protection to elect trial by jury."

We spoke to the foreman of a rape case who said his jury had identified the salient issues and agreement looked imminent, when a woman announced she had not been listened to and wasn't happy with the decisions so far but he thinks she just wanted dinner - a free buffet meal was being offered to the jury.

"I got the impression it wasn't so much that she was uncomfortable with the process but that she wanted to prolong the process, as it were."

Other than that, the jury took the case seriously, he says, though early on one juror had fallen asleep during the trial and was discharged.

Trials can be laborious as mountains of forensic and other evidence is presented. They can also be traumatic. During the verdict of Chinese students found guilty of partially decapitating a fellow student then putting his body in a suitcase and dumping him in the Auckland harbour, a juror broke down in tears.

The judge praised the jury and acknowledged some may have found the trial chilling and disturbing. Jurors are sometimes excused from further jury service for a number of years after gruelling cases and routinely offered free counselling.

Jury fees and expenses

Jurors can claim fees for attendance and costs such as childcare, public transport, mileage and parking.

The Ministry of Justice says the fees are not intended to replace wages or salaries, but it will pay:

* For each half-day for the first five days: $31. This rises to $40 for the sixth and subsequent days.

* If you're still at court from 6pm to 9pm the payment for the whole day rises to $89 for the first five days, or $114 for the sixth and subsequent days.

* If you are at court after 9pm (such as when deliberating into the night on a verdict) you will receive $127 for the first five days and $163 for the sixth and subsequent days.


Ministry of Justice website

- NZ Herald

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