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Research into juries shows reform needed

A number of improvements could be made to the way jury trials operate, ground-breaking new research from Victoria University has found.

“The research shows that many juries have significant problems in trying to understand the evidence presented to them and in understanding and applying the law properly,” said Victoria University Law Professor Warren Young.

“The research does not call into question the integrity of jury trials or their part in the judicial process,” he said. “However, there are clearly a number of areas which can be improved.

“These include the way evidence is presented to juries, how juries choose a foreperson and the advice they are given on legal issues and decision-making.”

Professor Young said the problems came about through the way in which trials were run, not a lack of juror competence. “Jurors took their duties very seriously, worked hard to do a good job and by-and-large were extraordinarily conscientious,” he said.

“In general, jurors felt that serving on a jury was a worthwhile experience. However, many felt that they were not valued by the system. Particularly in longer and more serious cases, jurors suffered considerable stress and personal inconvenience.”

Professor Young said there was insufficient help available to jurors to assist them in dealing with stress, and that better practical facilities for juries were needed.

Professor Young said the research also investigated the effect of pre-trial and trial publicity on juries, and found that its effect was almost always minimal. “Jurors are able to put media coverage aside and judge the case on the evidence alone,” he said. “Many commented that media coverage was partial and often inaccurate. This made it easier to discount.”

The research had also looked closely at the issue of hung juries and found that they fell into two groups. Professor Young said while some hung juries were caused by a prejudiced or irrational “rogue juror”, others involved a minority of jurors holding a reasoned basis for their view. “This means that sometimes a hung jury avoids an unjust or questionable result.”

The research, the first of its kind in New Zealand and the Commonwealth, has been central to the development of the Law Commission’s discussion paper Juries in Criminal Trials: Part Two, on which public submissions are currently being accepted. Professor Young says Australian researchers are interested in repeating the project.

312 jurors from 48 trials were interviewed over a nine-month period in 1998. The judge for each case was also interviewed. The trials, of which 18 were High Court and 30 District Court, covered offences ranging from murder to attempted burglary, and were from a range of urban and provincial courts.

The research project was funded by Victoria University, the New Zealand Law Foundation, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Courts and the Legal Services Board.


ENDS

For further information please contact:

Professor Warren Young, Faculty of Law, Victoria University, Ph +64 4 463 6347, Fax +64 4 463 6365, Email Warren.Young@vuw.ac.nz, PO Box 600, Wellington.

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