Do your jury duty

Matt Burgess
Insights Newsletter
23 April, 2021

It is said going to court means putting your fate in the hands of twelve people who were not smart enough to get out of jury duty.

Which says a lot because avoiding jury duty is simply a matter of not turning up. New figures from the Ministry of Justice show one in seven people summoned for jury duty do not appear.

That is a shame. My experience on a jury was one of the most rewarding interactions I’ve had with the public service.

The case was a criminal trial at the Wellington High Court in 2018. It was about the historic sexual abuse of a child in the 1970s. The trial lasted a week.

Sitting on the jury, I felt the weight of the responsibility we had been given. A man was on trial for his life, and I wanted to do everything I could to make the right decision, to hear every word from witnesses. I found myself watching for any attempt to mislead the jury or to reach for answers.

The court’s attention to due process impressed me. The Judge explained the jury’s task, defined what guilt means in a criminal trial (more than likely, less than absolute certainty), and made clear it is the prosecution’s job to prove guilt.  We should infer nothing from the Police officers sitting beside the accused, said the Judge, nor from his decision not to testify.

The courts may not be perfect. But I saw a system that understands the gravity of its task and has the processes in place to manage that responsibility. Some see due process as protecting the rights of the accused at the expense of victims. Perhaps. But it also protects the legitimacy of convictions.

Unfortunately, we saw little respect for due process from the prosecution. There was never any chance of a conviction in this case. Crown Law almost certainly breached the Prosecution Guidelines by going to court. I believe Crown Law was not prosecuting this case. It was disposing it. But that is another story.

The state had taken a year from an innocent man. The jury couldn’t give that time back. But we could save the rest of his life. We declared him not guilty of all charges.

It was satisfying to see the process, reach a decision, and make a difference. Were it possible to volunteer to sit on more juries, I would.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates