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The right of ‘trial by jury’ is an important safeguard against the power of the state over people’s lives. The primary role of trial by jury is to enable ordinary people to decide on the guilt or innocence of those charged with crimes against the laws of the land, instead of judges or magistrates appointed by the government. Juries also play a limited role in the enforcement of civil laws as well. But the right to trial by jury has been limited in the interests of the efficient operation of the justice system. All minor offences and the majority of crimes which go to trial are dealt with ‘summarily’ at hearings without juries in the Magistrates Court. Very few civil trials have a jury because of the expense.

The role of the jury varies between civil and criminal cases. In a criminal trial, the role of the jury is to decide ‘questions of fact’ while the judge decides ‘questions of law’. Whether a particular blow killed a person is a question of fact. Whether the killing of that person by means of that blow is murder or manslaughter is a question of law. The jury will decide such questions by considering the evidence presented in the court. The jury will listen to witnesses and view the ‘exhibits’, that is, physical evidence such as weapons, finger-prints, documents or blood-stained clothing. After being ‘addressed’ by the lawyers on both sides of the case and listening to the ‘directions’ from the judge about the law, the jury will then retire to ‘consider the evidence’ and reach a ‘verdict’. In civil cases juries will sometimes decide on the amount of compensation. In defamation trials they may also make findings of fact.

Many aspects of jury duty are regulated by the Juries Act 2003 (Tas). Under the Act all people listed on the Electoral Roll between 18 and 70 years of age are liable for service as jurors. Persons who have been sentenced to imprisonment for a period of three months or more (including suspended sentences) in the previous five years, or are on bail, probation or performing community service, are not qualified to serve as jurors. The sheriff of the court can disqualify a person from acting as juror in the case of mental or physical disability or where the juror cannot understand English. A wide range of those who work in the justice system and their spouses, such as judges, magistrates, court officials, police and prison officers and lawyers as well as those working in essential services such as senior public servants, members of parliament, doctors, dentists, opticians, physiotherapists, chemists, vets, nurses, academics, teachers, pilots and air crews, and masters, skippers and crews of merchant ships and fishing vessels are exempted from jury service. The sheriff can also excuse those who have a ‘reasonable excuse’ including a ‘family responsibility’ which involves caring for other persons, or those who have served on a jury in the past three years.

Potential jury members will be summoned to attend the court. Failure to attend is an offence. The process of actually becoming a member of a jury is called ‘impanelling’. Both sides have the power to challenge potential jury members, though in the case of the defence in criminal trials a reason must be given after six challenges. Jury panels in criminal trials consist of 12 people and in civil trials seven people. In both cases a ‘foreman’ is appointed who speaks for the panel. A ‘majority verdict’ of 10 out of 12 jurors can decide a criminal case after two hours of deliberation, except for very serious offences. In civil cases ‘majority verdict’ of five out of seven jurors can decide the case after four hours of deliberation. Where majority verdicts cannot be achieved, in the case of both civil and criminal trials the jury is ‘discharged’ and there may have to be a further trial. Jurors are paid for lost wages and travelling expenses.
 

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