Senior Counsel Ralph Ramkarran says the jury system needs to be abolished and not reformed as was recently proposed by Attorney General Anil Nandlall during the budget debate.
Ramkarran cited the recent poor conviction rate from High Court cases and the growing complexity of crimes that juries have to preside over.
Noting that jury trial by peers is neither a constitutional nor human right, Ramkarran pointed out that it has been successfully abolished in common law countries.
In his column in the last Sunday Stabroek, Ramkarran said that he had written twice over the past year urging that the jury system be dropped. On the first occasion several lawyers, including the Attorney General, disagreed with the view. On the second occasion, Ramkarran said he repeated the view in an article adverting to the remarks of Chief Justice Ivor Archie of Trinidad and Tobago who had urged that the jury system be reformed. Ramkarran had also noted that Justice Archie’s view was supported by two of the most outstanding jurists of the Caribbean region, retired Chief Justices Sharma and de la Bastide of Trinidad and Tobago.
Ramkarran referred to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions report for the last Criminal Assizes from January 15 to March 28 which showed that 25 matters were completed in Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo. Eighteen matters were presented for Demerara. In two, he noted that the DPP withdrew prosecution and there were five guilty pleas to lesser offences. Of the remaining 11 that went to trial there was only 1 guilty verdict, Ramkarran said.
In Essequibo five matters were completed with one being withdrawn. Of the two that went to trial both saw acquittals. In Berbice two persons pleaded guilty to lesser offences, two were found not competent to stand trial and one trial was 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 per cent 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”, Ramkarran asserted.
He said that the reason for the low percentage of convictions is not known, as no investigation or study has been carried out of jury trials and it may be difficult to determine anything useful as jurors are sworn to secrecy in relation to their deliberations. He added that there are undoubtedly some cases of inadequate investigations and maybe prosecutions but even if the conviction rate was doubled, the rate would still be appallingly low. He contended that something is seriously wrong with the system and tinkering with it is unlikely to change anything.
“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 per cent, 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”, Ramkarran argued.
Underlining that countries in the region which are of similar social composition appear to be having the same problems with their jury systems, Ramkarran said that if Trinidad which is better resourced than Guyana, is contemplating a review of its jury system, there was no reason for Guyana to hold on to the view that a trial by peers holds some special significance.
“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”, he added.
During the budget debate, Nandlall said that a full reform of the jury system is expected to take place this year.
Nandlall had posited that the administration of criminal justice is a two-way street and that the state and by extension the victims of crimes and their relatives are equally entitled to a fair trial as is the accused person.
“That delicate balance must always remain intact. The jury system is an integral factor in this equation,” he stressed.
According to Nandlall, during discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions and representatives of the Commission on Women and Gender Equality, they reported that from their consultations, “the wider society has lost, or is rapidly losing confidence in the jury system, especially in sexual offences matters.”
The Attorney General contended that statistics over the past three years with reference to sexual offences cases reveal a very important factor; victims are refusing to testify.
Citing cases from 2011 to 2013, he stated that in the years 2012 and 2013, there was not a single conviction from a total of 22 sexual offences cases. This position, he said, was not very different in non-sexual cases.
Nandlall stated that in the examination of the jury system, care will be exercised to ensure that there is no erosion of its principal objective; affording the accused a trial by peers.
“The changes will include a review of the current jury pool with the objective of expanding it. Currently, the pool is quite limited and it has been historically confined to just a few entities from which jurors are drawn,” he noted.
He argued too that the qualifications of jurors will also be reviewed since currently, they are linked to ownership of property, or earning capacity. “Both of these qualifications in today’s society are archaic and irrelevant. In the process, the unanimity verdict in relation to capital offences and majority verdict in relation to non-capital offences of the jury which currently obtains, will also be reviewed,” he said.
Recalling the recent Lusignan massacre murder trial, Nandlall said that with the nation witnessing the “travesty of what transpired”, statutory protection against jury tampering and jury manipulation will also be strengthened. “Brazen manipulation of the jury system must end now,” he stressed.