The NSW Government’s proposed changes to jury laws, designed to contribute to a fairer and more efficient justice system, include a proposal that risks reducing an important safeguard for majority verdicts, the Law Society's President says.
On Monday 22 January, Law Society of NSW president Brett McGrath welcomed the scrutiny of the Jury Amendment Bill 2023 and the opportunity for the solicitors on the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee to express their expert views on the legislation.
McGrath believes the bill proposes mostly common-sense reforms, however the proposal to cut down jury deliberation times to just four hours is of significant concern.
“There can be few, if any, more important duties a citizen has than sitting on a jury. Yet a proposal to halve the amount of time before a jury can be excused from delivering a unanimous verdict represents an erosion of the importance of the jury’s role in our justice system,” McGrath said in a statement.
“The stakes for both defendants and the state could not be higher than in a jury trial. Both the defendant’s liberty and the state’s interest in enforcing the law hang in the balance.”
Currently, the Jury Act 1977 requires a criminal trial jury to sit for at least eight hours before a court can permit them to reach a “majority verdict” (in which a single juror’s opposing view can be disregarded). Cases in which more than one juror cannot agree to a verdict, after appropriate judicial encouragement, result in “hung juries”.
The Law Society’s submission to the Legislative Council’s Inquiry into the proposed changes to the Act advises that the rationale for the eight-hour minimum has not changed since the measure was introduced in 2006.
“The then Attorney General Bob Debus was right when he told the Parliament that an eight-hour minimum compels a jury to deliberate ‘for more than one court day’ before it’s directed that it can return a majority verdict,” McGrath said.
“Given the grave consequences that can flow from a jury verdict, this period should remain the very least that a jury is required to consider often complex evidence, to deliver their decision unanimously. A mere four hours is insufficient.
“Judges have the discretion to require juries to deliberate for longer periods, but reducing the minimum time to four hours carries the risk that juries will rush to a verdict in cases where a person’s liberty is a stake. That outcome would be anathema to the right to a trial by jury.”
McGrath reiterated the Law Society supports reforms that strike the right balance between an individual’s right to a fair trial and an efficient justice system, but says the organisation will also speak up when proposed reforms pose avoidable risks to the administration of justice.