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Friday, June 20, 2008

Is the Australian jury still out on this one?

Our Kiwi cousins across the ditch, have often led the way for their more conservative Australian cousins. Kiwis have a radical history that Australia has seldom shared. Aussies bring up the rear.

Now first let me declare my position. I am a 100% supporter of juries. For me, they are an ancient British system which has served us well. Trials of all sorts have become more complex these days. Some of that is due to technology. Some of that is due to the sophisticated crims that abound to-day. But an awful lot is due to the legal profession/system itself, particularly with nit-picking approaches to law that leave citizens wondering if there is any justice and whether they might be better served taking the law into their own hands.

Now, not everything about the jury system is perfect - never has been. And, in recognition of this, we have adopted the motto "Better that ten guilty people go free, than one innocent person be convicted". In short, there is often a price to pay for the way the jury system operates.

Jury verdicts in Australia have been required to be unanimous - 12 out of 12 decisions. But there have been various tamperings around the edges of this. Scotland, however, has traditionally allowed majority verdicts. Now our Kiwi cousins have voted overwhelmingly for majority verdicts from Kiwi juries.

Not only that, they have gone a step further and stepped into the dangerous waters of double jeopardy. There have been cries in this country for the abolition of double jeopardy. One particular Queensland case going back decades - know names, no pack drill - raises its head on a regular basis in this regard.

The advances of DNA technology seems to have influenced many of the calls for the abolition. Again, the principle of double jeopardy has served us well - and it is not only Miss Eagle who thinks so. Various nations around the world - although not Australia - have enshrined the principle as a constitutional right. If the principle is abolished, it might be possible for people to be tried and tried again until the desired result is achieved. As it stands to-day, once a person is declared innocent of a charge then that is it. Except...and the exception has meant that if the powers-that-be believe it to be warranted, people are arraigned on other charges where possible. These may be lesser charges - but the whole community reads the sub-text.

My view - for what it is worth: I am prepared to go to exceptional use of majority verdicts but only as far as 10 out of 12 majorities, no further. I am not prepared to abolish in any shape or form the principle of double jeopardy. The power shifts away from the community too far into the hands of law enforcement for my liking.

I would, dear Reader, draw your attention to the views and experience of Chester Porter. Since his retirement from the Sydney Bar, Chester - the father of the wonderful poet, Dorothy Porter - has taken to writing. In his autobiography, Walking on Water, Chester gives a lot of time to putting forward his view that the next round of improvements in the legal system have to come through better police work. He expounds his argument with history that will be familiar to any reader of the daily press and brings in his own experience. So, Miss Eagle's view on double jeopardy is: give us high, impeccable, impartial, incorruptible standards of police work and I have confidence that juries will tend to give the right verdicts in the first place.
When you can do nothing else: bear witness.