A Dunedin criminal trial was postponed this week because of a lack of jurors — the first time it has happened in the city in living memory.
The trial had been due to start on Wednesday afternoon. The Ministry of Justice refused to disclose how many people were summonsed to the Dunedin District Court to fill the 12 jury seats.
The Otago Daily Times understands about 25 people showed up — a third of the number expected.
After the selection process was undertaken, though, only 11 chairs were occupied.
Judge Michael Turner remanded the young defendant in custody until next week, when there will be another attempt at empanelling a jury.
Dunedin’s Crown solicitor Robin Bates, with decades of experience behind him, said he could not recall the scenario ever occurring before, nor could other experienced lawyers canvassed by the ODT.
“It obviously causes a delay for the people involved and inconvenience and we lose a couple of days of valuable court time,” he said.
New Zealand Law Society Otago branch president Taryn Gudmanz said the situation was “really really disappointing”.
Being tried by a jury of one’s peers was a right underpinning the criminal justice system, she said.
While, on the surface, the postponement might only represent a delay of a few days, Gudmanz said the impact ran far deeper.
Witnesses would have organised time off work, child care, some might be travelling from out of town; and there was the knock-on effect for other cases awaiting hearing.
Another trial which had been due to start next week, involving counsel from the North Island, had now been adjourned until September, to find a viable date.
Potential jurors who are unable to participate on their assigned date can have their attendance excused by the ministry or alternatively have their service deferred until a later date.
Under the Juries Act, anyone outside those categories who does not attend for jury service can be fined up to $1000.
Before imposing a fine, however, the court must afford that person a reasonable chance to explain their absence.
Between 2013 and 2016, more than a quarter of people summonsed to do jury duty in Dunedin failed to turn up.
Despite the prevalence of jury-dodging, only a couple of people across the country have been fined in the last five years.
Ministry of Justice acting Southern regional manager John Houghton said each court summonsed jurors on a case-by-case basis, “varying on case specific factors, such as the number of defendants and the complexity of the case, and local factors, such as patterns from previous jury trial summonses”.
A practice known as “praying a tales” where members of the public could be recruited from the street on the day of a trial to make up a shortfall in numbers was no longer legal since the introduction of the Juries Act 1981 and the Criminal Procedure Act 2011, Houghton said.
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