Editorial: Limiting jury trials may be a step too far

NZ Herald Nov 18, 2010
Anybody who has had to wait for criminal justice in New Zealand will welcome most elements of the bill introduced to Parliament this week by Justice Minister Simon Power. It takes some practical steps to resolve cases a good deal faster than the year they have been taking in the District Court and the 16 months in the High Court. In future, defence lawyers will be required to identify issues in dispute before the trial begins, hearings will be able to proceed in the absence of a defendant who has no reasonable excuse for not turning up, and procedural co-operation – or the lack of it – can be considered at the sentencing. But one element of Mr Power’s bill may be a step too far. It would withdraw the right to jury trials for charges that carry less than three years’ imprisonment. At present, anybody charged with an offence punishable with at least three months’ jail can choose to be tried by a jury or by a judge alone. To raise the threshold from three months to three years is too drastic. The right to be judged by fellow citizens rather than an officer of the law is important, particularly when someone’s liberty is at stake.
..With so much time saved (from the other proposals), the system surely can afford to retain the right to trial by jury in every case where liberty may be lost.