A jury is a panel of Australian citizens over the age of 18 that acts as an independent decision-making body in criminal or civil cases.
The jury’s role is to decide on questions on fact. This means that it must listen to and consider the evidence in order to decide what happened in the case. Before retiring to consider the case, the jury will also listen to the judge’s charge, which includes a summary of each party’s case and instructions on how to apply the law and reach a verdict.
In criminal cases, a jury of twelve will decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. If they cannot come to such a decision, there will be a hung jury. The decision must be unanimous for murder, manslaughter, Commonwealth offences and treason. For all other offences, a majority verdict (eleven out of twelve jurors) is required. The jury must be certain of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
In civil cases, a jury of six will find “for the plaintiff” or “for the defendant”, or alternatively, there will be a hung jury. The jury will rule on the balance of probabilities and can decide the amount of damages. However, civil juries are optional and quite rare.
Victoria is divided into areas from which potential jurors will be selected, also known as “jury districts”. From each district, the names of potential jurors are drawn randomly from the electoral roll.
The Juries Commissioner sends a questionnaire to all those whose names were selected from the electoral roll. The questionnaire determines whether the potential jurors are eligible to serve on a jury. If a potential juror has a connection to the law (for example, if he or she is a lawyer, parliamentarian, on the police force) he or she will be ineligible. If the potential juror has a connection to crime, he or she will be disqualified. Some potential jurors may apply to be excused due, for instance, to advanced age or distance from the court. Potential jurors may be temporarily excused due to school exams or a pre-booked holiday. Finally, based on this questionnaire, a list of eligible jurors will be drawn up.
Potential jurors will attend court when required. Their names and occupations are recorded on cards, which are then placed in a ballot box. From this box, jurors cards will be drawn and they will be directed to a particular court room.
Once the potential jurors are in their respective court rooms, their names will be called one by one. Upon being called, a juror will stand, and move to the jury box. While a juror is walking to the jury box, each party has the opportunity to challenge the juror. If a potential juror is challenged, he or she will not serve on the jury. Each party, in a criminal case, is allowed six peremptory challenges, meaning that they challenge the juror without reason. Parties are also allowed to challenge for cause. Challenges for cause require an explanation.
Once the jury has been selected, the jurors must swear on an oath or make an affirmation. Finally, the jury selects a foreperson. The foreperson’s role is to ask the court questions on behalf of the jury, lead the group during deliberation and to deliver the verdict.
Strengths and weaknesses of the jury system
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