The role of the jury in a democracy in action

Judge Michael Crosbie

Jury trials are a central part of my work in the District Court where I have been a judge for 16 years. I chair the District Court’s criminal trials committee which meets regularly to review and discuss how criminal trials are conducted, including trials before a jury.

Image of Judge M CrosbieAllegations of serious crime within a community require a response that is just, efficient and fair, both to defendants and to the community on whose behalf the prosecution is brought.  This is to sustain public confidence in the rule of law.

Broadly speaking, a defendant can choose a jury trial for any offence carrying a maximum penalty of two years’  imprisonment or more. In the District Court, this covers a wide range of offences: burglaries, robberies, importing drugs, domestic violence and sexual violence.

With a few exceptions, every person on the electoral roll is qualified and liable to serve on a jury.  In every court where jury trials are held, the Ministry of Justice randomly selects and summonses jurors several weeks ahead of scheduled jury trials. Each week, hundreds of our citizens answer this call, prepared to serve on a jury if selected.

Jury service is an opportunity for members of the public to be directly involved in the administration of justice, ensuring public participation in the rule of law.  Empirical research carried out in New Zealand has shown that, in the vast majority of cases, jurors are conscientious and their decisions sound.

Juries are also a democratic aspect of our form of government; it is democracy in action when ordinary people participate in making decisions of vital importance.  Jurors listen to the evidence and determine by their verdicts whether fellow citizens are guilty or not guilty of the charges before the court.

Jurors bring with them to court their life experience and common-sense and are expected, just like judges, to act impartially and without sympathy or prejudice towards anyone involved in the case.

Jury service does require some self-sacrifice in being away from home or work, but I suggest that sacrifice is outweighed by the privilege of being involved in an important part of our country’s democracy and the rule of law.

While a small fee and expenses are paid to jurors, jurors often report that the real reward is the sense of satisfaction of being involved in the important work of the courts and the opportunity to work collaboratively with a group of fellow citizens.

Jurors are expected to answer their summonses.  Judges realise that jury service is not always convenient and we appreciate the thousands of our fellow citizens who willingly turn up to perform this important public function.

On behalf of my fellow judges I extend our gratitude to those who have answered a summons for jury service.  We also commend serving as a juror to the public, both as an interesting experience and one that is vital to the functioning of our courts and upholding the rule of law.

“Empirical research carried out in New Zealand has shown that, in the vast majority of cases, jurors are conscientious and their decisions sound”