In 1978 the PNC administration proposed the Administration of Justice Bill which sought, among other things, to increase the number of offences which could be tried summarily, that is to say, before a Magistrate. These offences which were known as indictable offences, were heard before a Judge and jury. There was great opposition to the Bill in the legal profession across the political divide on the ground that it was an attempt to abolish jury trials. A strike was called which was supported almost unanimously by the entire Bar. A picketing demonstration was held outside the Parliament Building. Even though these were dangerous times, the demonstration was a great success. The Bill was eventually passed with some modifications but the number of indictable offences reduced, or capable of being reduced, to summary offences, was increased. It meant that jury trials for a number of offences was abolished.
It is not known whether the suspicion that the Government was attempting to abolish jury trials was accurate. Such suspicions about legal and other matters abounded at the time because of the undemocratic nature of the regime in power and the belief that every effort was being made to deprive Guyanese of rights which had long been won. The right to vote had already been lost. No further attempt was made to expand the list of indictable offences to summary offences which can be tried before a magistrate.
Trial by jury which existed in various forms since Greek times and was officially protected by the Magna Carta in 1215, is considered in some jurisdictions, particularly common law jurisdictions like ours, to provide the ultimate safeguard against authoritarianism and the abuse of state power. However, some common law jurisdictions such as India, Pakistan, Singapore and others have abolished trial by jury. In the case of India it was because of the divided nature of the society which resulted in jury decisions being made on the basis of prejudicial factors instead of the facts of the case.
In the case of Singapore it was as a result of the view that jury decisions on the basis of the prejudices of jurors was not a good basis for judging facts of a case.
In many developed countries which have developed fair judicial systems, such as Germany and Italy, decisions in criminal trials are made by tribunals consisting of a few judges and some citizens sitting together and making decisions on the guilt or innocence of the accused and passing sentence. It appears therefore that even though in many countries trial by jury has been abolished or does not exist, there is some form of layperson input in determining guilt or innocence of accused persons because the decision making panels comprise a number of such laypersons. It does not appear that there is any inherent advantage of jury trial over panel trial or vice versa because there has been no fundamental complaint of the quality of justice dispensed in countries without jury trials.
In recent years the rate of conviction in jury trials in Guyana has declined considerably even taking into account investigatory deficiencies and prosecutorial lapses. Quite apart from deficiencies and lapses, many convictions are overturned on appeal because of inadequate summing up by judges to juries. At the end of every criminal case tried in the High Court the Judge is required to assess the evidence and instruct the jury on the law. The number of appeals which have been upheld for this reason is extremely high.
For these reasons, and since Guyana has returned to democratic rule, consideration should be given to the abolition of jury trials with such safeguards as are necessary to protect the rights of accused persons and prevent state interference but at the same time to reduce the possibility of guilty offenders escaping justice because of flaws and deficiencies in our system of justice.
On Tuesday May 29, 2012, the Guyana Chronicle carried a report of a 25 year old accused who was freed of rape and robbery by a jury of ‘young people,’ describing it as a ‘surprise verdict.’ It stated: ‘The accused had allegedly committed the offence on a 46 – year old security guard. It is said that after the offence was committed, the accused was chased and caught by men who did not lose sight of him.’ The report said that the Judge also appeared surprised at the verdict. The full facts of this case are not known except to the persons involved. It is therefore unwise to jump to conclusions. However, this is not the first instance where evidence points clearly in a certain direction and the verdict of the jury then defies explanation.
The abolition of jury trials, subject to safeguards satisfactory to all stakeholders, will enhance the delivery of justice to the public and to those injured or harmed by crimes.