I heard something about this in the news the other day, and thought it was someone in Government just “flying a kite.” I didn’t know we were supposed to regard this as the government’s serious and considered plan. So when this press release from Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) landed in my inbox yesterday, I was deeply disturbed. Is this an idea for “speeding things up” in the clogged and semi-paralysed justice system – since there is a persistent and long-standing shortage of potential jurors in the jury pool? And yes – it would be very helpful if the Government could kindly explain the reasoning behind this, and at the very least commission a study on the implications of such a drastic measure.
JFJ Concerned By Plan to Abolish Right to Trial By Jury in Certain Murder Cases Without Consultation
The Jamaican government intends to strip all persons of the time-honoured right to trial by a jury in cases where the police accuse someone of murder using a gun. Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) is concerned that by a simple parliamentary majority, and without any meaningful consultation, a profoundly important right will be taken away from everyone. JFJ does not support the abolition of these jury trials without a detailed public examination of its potential impact on the justice system and on accused persons (especially the poor), or without appropriate consultations that pay the respect to the Jamaican people that they are due.
The Jamaican people must be consulted.
This right to trial by jury existed in common law long before Jamaica’s independence. Even if the measure is well-meaning, this important right should not be summarily taken away without widespread consultation and the provision of a firm basis for the move, including relevant data. The basic tenets of participatory and accountable governance demand nothing less.
The right to trial by jury is deemed so sacrosanct that it is constitutionally protected in some jurisdictions, although not the case in Jamaica. This protection exists because it prevents state actors (who include judges and prosecutors) from unilaterally making decisions which, without the participation of citizens, could lead to miscarriages of justice. Juries provide an opportunity for citizens to participate in our court system. They provide the voice of common sense, and allow citizens with varying perspectives and social backgrounds to impact the country’s body of law. Jurors are not case-hardened by years in the justice system, and view each case with fresh eyes.
The government must give a public account of the reasons and evidence supporting the move.
If there are compelling reasons to end jury trials in cases where police accuse someone of murder where the weapon was a gun, but maintain them for murders using other weapons or when someone simply accuses a person of defamation, for example, then those reasons must be shared with the Jamaican public. Murder is one of the most serious offences, with profound impacts on the families of deceased victims. Moreover, a conviction for murder can result in life imprisonment, and in Jamaica’s beleaguered judicial system, upheave an accused person’s life. As such, we must ensure that when the stakes are this high, the system is the most balanced and accountable.
This is not about so-called “defence of criminals.” It is about ensuring that the protections we ALL have, if the police simply accuse us of a serious crime, are not removed without proper examination. This most affects those who are poor, and cannot afford an attorney.
It may be helpful if the Ministry of Justice commissions a detailed study, like the one done by the Government of the United Kingdom, on the possible effects of the abolition of these jury trials on the justice system and on defendants – especially those who are poor – before taking this sudden decision. Moreover, the Government should say how this measure will affect the thousands of Jamaicans who were arrested whilst they had the right to trial by a jury.
We call on the government to respect its people, and consult them before changing their time-honoured rights, even if they mean well.
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