Forced Judge Only No Jury Trials in Light of COVID 19

Forced ‘Judge only, no jury’ trials in light of COVID 19 restrictions and how the court is rectifying these issues

In light of the current restrictions, more specifically social distancing restrictions, that have been in place for some time in response to the COVID 19 global pandemic, Queensland courts have opted against the use of a Jury in trial matters, resorting to judge only trials.

The role of a jury

The jury consists of 12 members of the public picked at random from the electoral roll.

Jurors are charged with the responsibility of deciding whether, on the evidence of the case, a person is guilty or not guilty of the offence for which he or she has been charged.

The jury must reach its verdict by considering only the evidence introduced in court and the directions of the judge. The jury does not interpret the law. It follows the directions of the judge on legal matters.

With this, jurors due have specific rules and guidelines that must be met in order to keep legitimacy and justness throughout each case hearing. If these rules have been contravened, there may be a matter resulting in a juror misconduct to be actioned or there may be a mistrial.

What is a Judge only trial?

A judge alone trial is a proceeding where rather than a judge coming to a final decision on a matter that has gone to trial, a jury assists the court in coming to a conclusion that is the most just and equitable outcome based on the evidence that has been presented in the case.

The benefits of a Judge only trial

A judge alone trial is beneficial strictly depending on the circumstances.

When a judge delivers their verdict, they have to give reasons as to what brought them to their decision. The disclosure of why a judge has decided on a guilty verdict makes the process more honest and transparent. This then shows that the decision that was made, was made exclusively on the evidence whereas coming to a decision based on emotion, prejudgment or sympathy.

When a trial by a jury is used in most cases, the jury deliberations are held behind closed doors, it is not necessary for the jury to disclose the reasons for that set the basis of the decision they came to. Therefore, there is no way of knowing whether the decision was made from a dispassionate and clinical assessment of the evidence.

When a case is more complex, it can become difficult for jurors to comprehend and understand particular issues. Cases like these may typically involve scientific evidence produced by experts, or substantive amounts of forensic materials. It is in these cases that judges have the better foundation when analysing evidence and know what specific areas of the evidence they should focus more attention on.

The benefits of a Jury trial

There are supporters of jury trials that highlight the unjustness of having one delegated person to make the overarching decision, but rather advocating for a group of people that have been given specific task of coming to a decision. It is also believed that a jury trial can correctly reflect the views of the more so than community because members of the jury are randomly selected from the public.

It is regularly stated that juries play a crucial role in our judicial system and there is no reason that the correct conclusion is unable to be reached between 12 regular citizens who have considered the evidence obtainable by the court. It could be a reasonable apprehension that a single judge might be slightly disconnected to that of regular societal norms, and their decision may not mirror the principles of the public as a collective.

Current restrictions that remain in Queensland and how it is affecting the court system

Queensland Courts are responding to the evolving impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and have implemented a range of changes to court operations. However, Queensland courts are hearing cases.

The current court attendance requirements are laid out below:

Maintain safe distancing

  • Follow COVID-19 signage instructions about safe distancing and the directions of court staff and security officers
    • Staff may limit the number of people entering the courthouse to ensure safe distancing can be maintained
    • Leave a one seat space in the public gallery (unless family/same household)
    • You may be required to leave a courtroom at any time, if necessary, for court proceedings to continue.

Hygiene and cleaning

  • Follow COVID-19 signage instructions about good hygiene practices
    • Use the hand sanitiser, disinfectant wipes, tissues and bins provided
    • In addition to daily routine cleaning on court sitting days, contact flat surfaces in courtrooms and high touch surfaces in public areas will be cleaned more regularly.

The way forward

With current restrictions overseen attentively by governments, the future implementations planned for easement of restrictions through proposed stages are the only way back to the pre-COVID courts. However, the question that remains is whether this is a much needed ‘clean slate’ in which we can see new, more effective operations change the jury and court system forever?

Computer technology is playing a great role in the implementation of the ever-changing times, particularly where video conferencing is used by the Court. There could be some variation between State and Federal Courts in the quality and accessibility of such technology.

For example, in New South Wales, a larger dependence on technology, increasing the use of audio visual links and pre-recording evidence of key witnesses has become and will remain a significant part of everyday operations due to newly introduced emergency laws.

In some jurisdictions, parties will be required to lodge electronic court books.

Thus, a jurisdiction which provides a speedier resolution of a dispute because of the accessibility of its technology may be preferred and could render a change in the court system forever.

Recommendations on ways around seating a jury

The way forward for juries has been a topical point of discussion, but utilising technology such as audio-visual links that can be attained by jury members should be considered. During the stricter times COVID brought previously, this recommendation of online video calls would have been hard to regulate and exclude subjectivity, especially in more high-profile matters.