Insufficient number of potential jurors and the failure by Northland courts to punish those who fail to show for jury service has come to a point where significant injustice could occur, a leading criminal lawyer has warned.
Kaikohe-based Doug Blaikie said the attendance of potential jurors was getting worse which resulted in mistrials, particularly in Kaikohe District Court and cases transferred to other courts in some cases.
His comments followed the postponement of a jury trial in Kaikohe on June 30 after three jurors were excused shortly after the trial started before an insufficient number turned up the next day who were not initially selected.
Three people- Jason Ransfield, Tainui Apiata and Laurie Apiata- were on trial that was set down for two weeks before Judge John McDonald.
Their trial, on various violence charges, started on June 29 but when court resumed after lunch, Judge McDonald was forced to adjourn proceeding to the next day after three jurors had to be excused for various reasons.
The ministry said 48 prospective jury members who were not selected on June 29 were asked to come back to court the next day. However, only 17 returned which was an insufficient number to re-start the trial as the Crown and defence lawyers could challenge up to six potential jurors each.
Judge McDonald decided to adjourn the trial and to move it to Whangarei District Court so it could be heard sooner. A new trial date in Kaikohe was not available this year.
Last week, a trial Mr Blaikie was involved in very nearly ran out of jury members after he said a significant number of those selected were excused by the presiding judge.
Mr Blaikie said many people in the Far North were not registered on the electoral roll from which the jury pool is selected. Another problem, he said, was the difficulty in getting information from the Justice Ministry on how jury panels were allocated in both Maori and general rolls which resulted in a significant lack of Maori jurors.
"It's apparent that a significant number are not answering summons for jury service or are simply ignoring them with impunity. If those that are summonsed for jury service fail in their duty as a citizen, there should be consequences," he said.
General manager District Courts, Tony Fisher, said insufficient jurors to start a trial was very uncommon and the last time the ministry was aware of that happening in Northland was for a trial in Whangarei in May 2013.
He said in October 2013, the ministry extended the jury district boundaries from 30km around each jury court to 45km to increase the potential juror pool.
A second change, he said, allowed summonsed jurors to apply to defer their service to a more convenient time rather than having to be excused outright.
The maximum penalty for failing to attend is a fine not exceeding $1000. Mr Fisher said fining a person was rarely used. "Only a handful of people have been fined in the last eight years," he said.