Majority verdicts in Australia

Essay by wolflikemeHigh School, 12th gradeA+, June 2007

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The role of the jury is to determine innocence or guilt of defendant based on the evidence given in court. The requirement 12 people must find the defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt has existed in law since the 14th century. In the past 12 jurors had to reach a unanimous verdict which was often difficult to achieve because of rogue jurors. It was inefficient in terms of time and tax payer money. Majority verdicts have been debated extensively since the mid 1990s and there have been three private members bills introduced on the subjectOne of the problems induced by unanimity is that of hung trials. 8% of trials by jury end up hung and this inability to reach a verdict frustrates the administration of justice. Such trials cause emotional, financial and time costs and can end with no sense of closure for the victim.

Another problem with unanimous verdicts is that of rogue jurors.

Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdrey demonstrates the basic principles behind this issue, as one can see from this quote. Rogue jurors are those that may irrationally and tenaciously refuse to agree with the majority and can debase an entire trial, resulting in time and monetary cost for the entire justice system and ultimately the communityYet another issue is compromised verdicts which are the result of undesirable compromises, for example under Black directions where minority jurors may be coerced to take majority views even if they don’t completely agree. Some may be harassed and bullied into agreement, especially if only one disagrees.

Finally, juror corruption is another issue that needed to be addressed. It encourages interference with jurors in order to secure desired verdict. If one juror can be corrupted with bribery or intimidation the rest of the jury is rendered powerless. Using unanimous verdicts, there is more opportunity for corruption – under majority, more than one would need to be approached, which would increase risk of detection.

In 1998, local councillor Phuong Ngo was charged with the 1994 murder of John Newman, a political rival who held the seat of Cabramatta. The first trial was aborted by the prosector on a legal technicality, the second ended in a 10:1 hung jury after 13 weeks in May 2000, and the third in 2001 resulted in Ngo’s conviction for joint enterprise, however no other joint enterprisers were convicted. In the final trial, the jurors deliberated for three days after the four month trial.

This case illustrated many flaws in unanimous verdicts. Firstly, after three trials only one person was found guilty, that was enough – the jury couldn’t convict co-conspirators which could mean that they hadn’t put complete thought and effort into the conviction. After the second trial, the lone jury who voted for acquittal accused other members of the jury of racism and intimidation, which is an unfortunate problem that sometimes occurs in the jury room. Finally, supporters of Ngo say he was convicted on flimsy evidence and that the motive was disproven – this could be so, the jury were tired and may not have wanted to face another retrialAlthough there are only two agencies that can reform the law – the courts and parliament – many steps have been taken to establish that a problem with unanimity is existent. The Black direction, used before the introduction of majority verdicts, and based on the case of Black v. the Queen. It aimed to reduce hung trials by suggesting further deliberation by the jury however some people believed it was unfair – the coercion of a single juror was not respecting individual rights. On the screen you can see some particular instructions recommended to be given to the jury by a judge.

The second step to reform was the BOCSAR report of 1997, and subsequently the following one of 2000. The earlier report found that if one or two people were allowed to disagree by way of majority verdict, 2.7% of charges on which juries deliberate would be resolved and 1.7% of court time would be saved. The latter report established that 82% of hung trials were listed for retrial and longer trials were more likely to result in hung trials.

Thirdly was the NSWLRC report, published in 2005, which came to the conclusion that the advantages of unanimity outweighed the disadvantages. On the screen here you can see reasoning for the occurrence of hung trials. The report also recommended empirical studies should be conducted into the adequacy, and possible improvement, of strategies designed to assist the process of jury comprehension and deliberation.

These three important actions helped to identify the problems with unanimity and eventually the Jury Amendment (Verdicts) Bill was passed in 2006. Here you can see what came into place with it, from section 51F. It also states that majority verdicts cannot be used in offences against Commonwealth law or in murder cases. The first case to use majority verdicts was that of the King Brothers, where one was found guilty by majority and one was acquitted.

Majority verdicts provide justice for both the individual and society in certain ways, but also can limit it. In the case of the defendant, a majority verdict provides them with a quick resolution. The accused can therefore, if found guilty, serve their punishment immediately and not have to wait months, even years, to begin. Majority verdicts can reduce the chance of an innocent person waiting for a retrial which may eventually acquit them. Also, it may save money for the accused in terms of paying for defence.

Furthermore, a majority verdict prevents the victim from sitting through possibly traumatising trials. In some cases, for example sexual assault cases, victims may be too upset to repeat evidence and therefore hinder their chances of achieving a just outcome. If such a person refuses to testify, there is a chance that the case may be aborted or that the jury may find that the lack of prosecution evidence will favour acquittal. This can result in the accused, escaping adequate punishment and therefore justice is not achieved.

However, there is opinion that majority verdicts provide justice much more easily for the victim than the accused. For example, it is unfortunately common fact that some jurors go into a trial believing that the accused is guilty – if they were not, why would the police have charged them? The legal system claims that the prosecution must persuade the jury into believing that the accused is guilty. It is much easier for them to persuade 10 or 11 people, than the full twelve.

Also, such verdicts cannot repair systematic flaws and may even aggravate them, as you can see from the David Brown quote on the screen. For example it would be easier to convict an innocent person who has been falsely charged due to suspicious circumstances – the one lone juror who believes in their innocence has less chance of persuading others or giving the accused another chance with a retrial.

Despite this, majority verdicts work to provide justice for society and although often criticised by those within the legal system, attain to the values of the majority. In previous years, the media has strongly pushed for the introduction of majority verdicts, for example through extensive coverage of cases such as Phuong Ngo and Bruce Burrell. Many members of society have a belief in “justice delayed is justice denied”, and therefore the Amendment act satisfied the needs and beliefs of society regarding to the provision of justice.

Additionally, majority verdicts are a positive step towards resource efficiency in the legal system. Trials and retrials can bog down the court process, meaning that defendants can be held in remand for long periods of time, and that victims are denied justice for longer periods of time. Often in high profile cases, the accused have to endure such lengthy periods being presumed guilty by society. Majority verdicts also reduce the cost of retrials, which can add up to one million dollars of tax payer money.

Therefore, it can be said that majority verdicts to provide justice for the majority of people, which is in its very essence. It saves trauma, time and money for many parties involved, and indeed for society on a whole. However, in light of the BOCSAR findings which report that these savings may be minimal, it is important that the legal system attempts to reduce error and flaws that may result in innocent convictions, and make sure this is not aggravated by majority verdicts.

BIBLIOGRAPHY -Majority Verdicts report - NSWLRCSydney Morning HeraldDaily TelegraphLegal Studies Study Guide - Nicholas Cowdrey