I have written twice over the past year urging that the jury system should be abolished. On the first occasion several lawyers, including the Attorney General, disagreed with the views I expressed. On the second occasion I repeated my views in an article publicizing the remarks of Chief Justice Ivor Archie of Trinidad and Tobago urging that the jury system be reviewed. His remarks were supported by two of the most outstanding jurists of the Caribbean region, retired Chief Justices Sharma and de la Bastide of Trinidad and Tobago. The latter is also retired President of the Caribbean Court of Justice.
Two events received publicity during last week. The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions reported that for the last Criminal Assizes which commenced on January 15 and ended on March 28, 25 matters were completed in Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo. 18 matters were presented for Demerara. In 2 the DPP entered nolle prosequi (withdrawal of prosecution). In 5 matters there were guilty pleas to lesser offences. Of the remaining 11 that went to trial there was only 1 guilty verdict.
In Essequibo 5 matters were completed. 1 was withdrawn. In the 4 remaining matters 2 went to trial and both were acquitted. In Berbice 2 persons pleaded guilty to lesser offences, 2 were found not competent to stand trial and 1 trial is in progress.
Therefore, of a total of 13 matters that went to trial, there was only 1 conviction. There is therefore a less than ten percent conviction rate.
Attorney General Anil Nandlall is reported to have said in Parliament during the Budget debate that “the wider society has lost, or is rapidly losing confidence in the jury system, especially in sexual offences matters.” He reported that in 22 sexual offences matters between 2012 and 2013 there were no convictions and that the situation is no different in relation to non sexual offences.
However, Mr. Nandlall is offering a reform of the jury system, not its abolition. His stated intention is to preserve the system whereby a person is to be judged by his/her peers, namely, the jury system. He intends to expand the jury pool, to review the qualifications in relation to terms of ownership of property and earning capacity and to abolish the requirement for unanimous verdicts in relation to murder. He may not know that it was the unanimous rule that saved the life of Arnold Rampersaud, the PPP stalwart falsely charged for murder, in whose first of three trials in 1977 only one juror held out over threats against his life.
There is no magic in the principle of trial by peers. It is an ancient system which has worked in many societies, particularly those which have inherited the common law tradition. Jury trial by peers is neither a constitutional nor a human right. They have been successfully abolished in common law countries and do not exist in countries with civil law systems. In many countries without jury systems, there are no complaints about the quality of their dispensation of justice.
The reason for the low percentage of convictions from jury trials is not known, as no investigation or study has been carried out. It may be difficult to accomplish anything useful from any such investigation or study because jurors are sworn to secrecy in relation to their deliberations. There is undoubtedly some cases of inadequate investigations and maybe prosecutions, but even if the police and prosecution are fully competent and the conviction rate is doubled, the rate of conviction would still be appallingly low. Something therefore is seriously wrong which the modest interventions of Mr. Nandlall are not likely to change.
Crime is becoming more sophisticated and heinous. Many crimes are not solved and many prosecutions are already unsuccessful. If retained, the jury system in coming years will be required to consider matters of greater complexity than they have to deal with today. These include money laundering, kidnapping and others. If the jury system is now so ineffective that the conviction rate is less that 10 percent, then it is quite likely that in time the slender thread which holds the system together will snap and the system will suffer a complete collapse, notwithstanding the tinkering reforms proposed by the Attorney General.
Countries in our region which are of similar social composition appear to be experiencing the same problems with their jury systems. If Trinidad and Tobago, which is better resourced than Guyana, is contemplating a review of its jury system, there in then no reason for Guyana to hold on to the myth that a trial by peers holds some special significance. It does not.
Guyana is burdened by crime, even if it may be favourably compared with some of our neighbours. To maintain a system of trial by jury which is hindering the effectiveness of our criminal justice system, is a bad idea.
The riveting trial of Oscar Pistorious in South Africa for murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, is taking place before a Judge and two assessors, not a jury.