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Criminal justice systems have employed the use of juries over centuries.  A jury comprises 12 members of the public who are tasked with evaluating all the evidence and determining whether the accused is guilty or not guilty.  Juries are never asked, or required, to provide the reasons behind their decisions.

While the right to a trial by jury is an inherent one, a greater number of applications are being made for a judge-alone trial than ever before.  One reason for this is that the legal issues in a case may be very complex and difficult to comprehend.  Some advocates have argued that judge-alone trials are a better alternative as judges are not influenced by ‘celebrity individuals’ or explicit evidence that would otherwise disturb the general public.

Further, there is no denying that since the advent of the internet, information has become readily accessible.  People become informed of events minutes after they happen and are likely to form opinions based on this.  Defence lawyers in Australia and the world argue that judge-alone trials are necessary in cases that have received extensive media saturation.  For example, the trials of Simon Gittany and Lloyd Rayney were judge-alone trials as the media commenting on these matters would have made it impossible for an impartial jury to be empanelled.

Some advocates have argued that the criminal justice system should do away with juries completely.  Former Western Australian Governor Malcolm McCusker stated, “there is a demand for what is popularly called ‘transparency’…[the] deliberations of juries, and their reasons for a verdict, are shrouded in total secrecy.  Not only do juries not give reasons, but they are not permitted to do so.  Hence, to appeal against a jury’s verdict is extremely difficult…the only way of achieving ‘transparency’ is for all trials to be by judge alone, possibly sitting with an assessor or assessors to assist the judge in cases which may involve complex issues of a scientific or commercial nature, or perhaps by three judges, each writing, without conferral, separate decisions”.  Others, such as former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, argue the contrary by stating, “juries perform a valuable role in connecting the community with criminal justice and in bringing into the process the community’s values and standards.”

Superior courts in Australia have maintained that a judge-only trial is an exception and not the rule.  Legitimate grounds must be made out in order for an application to be granted for a judge-alone trial.  This debate is far from over and one that will continue to interest legal commentators and legal counsels alike.

Should you, or anyone you know, need any help in relation to information on jury trials, or any other criminal matters, contact Lawson Legal for your free initial consultation with one of our criminal lawyers.