Friday, July 03, 2009

NZ’s first illegal verdict?

A recent law change by the National Party-led Government allowed juries in New Zealand to convict someone even if one juror dissents. For the first time, that has happened. The particular case was weird, since one juror had already been excused due to illness, so the vote was only 10 to 1.

This is a hard slap in the face of common law stretching all the way back to Magna Carta. For centuries, a unanimous verdict has been required for a conviction. Now, a single dissenter can be ignored to achieve conviction.

There aren’t many of us, actually, who would disagree with the intent: Why should one stubborn person stand in the way of conviction? But without any guarantees—and there are none—how long can it be until a simple majority of jurors is required to convict?

The larger issue here is whether juries are still the best way to determine whether guilt is proven. In the meantime, I’m extremely uneasy about where this lack of unanimity among jurors could lead. Politicians, motivated by purely political concerns, and bent on achieving convictions at any cost, could easily keep pushing the edges on this.

This is one thing that will require careful and close monitoring by independent people, folks outside Government who don’t have a vested interest in finding this to be all okay. I hope that happens, but I’m not optimistic. The end of democracy sometimes comes not all at once, but by a thousand tiny cuts. I hope this isn’t part of that cutting.

Addendum: I should point out that I'm not suggesting dark motives on the part of the government; their stated goal is that they want to save money by speeding up trials and reducing the need for re-trials. I have no reason to doubt them. The problem is unintended consequences, and that a future government, less committed to democratic traditions, could use this as justification for further eroding legal freedoms and rights. And that's why this sort of thing must be monitored—to ensure that this move doesn't lead down a darker path. By itself, this move may not—and probably will not—make any real difference. We just need to keep an eye on it to be sure, as we would with any other change of this kind, including any move away from jury trials altogether.

No comments: