Understanding the Law
October 11, 2013

The jury system – is it working? – Part 2

There are both inherent weaknesses and strengths in our jury system as pointed out in the last article. Some of the challengers of the system point to the lack of training of the jury. At present, the jurors summoned for the assizes are given a brief orientation about their duties. This is the only instruction that they receive with regard to their duties. Although improvement in this area could be helpful, it must be remembered that the jury deals with the facts, not the law, so significant training in law is not necessary.{{more}}

The law describes the persons who are eligible for jury duty. On that basis, the system comes up with persons who deal with factual reality of life and make reasonable decisions on a daily basis. The law is not opposed to the ordinary, reasonable prudent person, which is the standard used in many instances elsewhere in the law. It is true that the judge is trained in the law and rightly so, because it is the sphere of his influence. The judge sits throughout the trial and shares duty with the jury. One actually complements the other. One listens to the facts, the other makes sure that the evidence is properly presented according to law. The jury does not have to be trained in order to understand facts.

These are no stated reasons as to why a panel of twelve jurors is necessary in a murder case, but this appears to be an instance when safety in numbers counts. The founding fathers could have introduced it because it concerns matters of life and death and involves a decision by one’s peers. The number of jurors adds some credibility, because in a murder trial, the verdict must be unanimous. The evidence has to be convincing to have twelve persons as opposed to one person, the judge, agreeing to the verdict. Where one person disagrees, there is a hung jury and there must be a retrial. To have a single judge adjudicating on the facts and the law puts him under tremendous pressure. This is the situation in civil courts, but these are not issues of life and death.

There is, however, what one can consider to be threats to the jury in that strong-willed, dominant persons could unreasonably sway weaker persons to their way of thinking in the confines of the jury room. To avoid such an eventuality, jurors are informed during the orientation about this and are advised to report to the judge any undue influence inside or outside of the courthouse. One never knows how group dynamics operate in the jury room. Those of you who looked at two jurors in the Trayvon Martin case giving their had account on television of what had transpired in the jury room, saw a very strong juror and a somewhat weaker one. The juror who stood alone initially ended up agreeing with fellow jurors. She could have been genuinely influenced by the facts or by group dynamics. In SVG the public does not get to hear from jurors and the situation in the jury room is closed to all.

The fact that the jury has to deliberate in a closed room and does not have to give reasons for its decision, as do judges, opens the system to criticism. This goes against the transparency and accountability which we expect in decision-making in other spheres of life. Perhaps jurors should be required to give reasons for their decisions.

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.

E-mail address is: exploringthelaw@yahoo.com