juror turnout continues to be the iceberg that blocks the court system’s quest to sail towards justice in Jamaica.
Jurors are chosen from all parishes and the number selected varies, depending largely on the case count before the Circuit Court, and the Court Administration Division (CAD) has been appealing to Jamaicans to play their part in the administration of justice by showing up for jury duty.
However, previously selected jurors who decided to dodge the duty have told the Jamaica Observer that they did so out of concern for their safety.
One pointed to anecdotal stories of attacks against jurors which influenced her decision to avoid going to the court to which she was summoned.
“I have heard too many stories of people who agree and go to court and listen to certain cases and because of that their life is in danger. There is no guarantee that a man will not trail you to try and intimidate you, or worse, so I was not interested in doing any juror work,” she said.
“There are people that will brief you and say your identity is secured. But the same way a man can get a chip or a phone in prison is the same way a man can get your name and tell him people outside and put a target on your back. So really and truly, when you look at it, there is no certainty. And everybody involved in the justice system should understand why people may not be willing to step foot in a court.”
A recent summons obtained by the Sunday Observer read, “If you made default in attendance in pursuance to this summons without some reasonable excuse, you will render yourself liable to a fine of up to $10,000.00.”
Last April, reports from the CAD indicated low juror turnout, specifically in the parishes of Kingston and St Andrew, St James, Clarendon, and St Catherine.
Two months ago, figures obtained by the Sunday
Observer showed that jury trials that were slated for the Home Circuit Court in Kingston were affected as only 33 of the 1,500 Jamaicans summoned for duty during that period showed up for court.
Another individual echoed similar sentiments, arguing that, while he is aware of the fact that accused people, where the legislation does not prescribe otherwise, have their matters determined by a jury of their peers, the local system isn’t inviting.
“This is Jamaica, and no matter what assurance I am given that I will be safe, I am cannot allow myself to believe that. Even as a child growing up you constantly see how the system is corrupt and how people who are trying to do good get caught up in that all the time,” the man told the Sunday Observer.
“It’s not only gunman or criminals involved in a case that you have to worry about. You have to worry about the lawyers who are going to send people after you to ensure that their clients get off scot-free. That is the reality. So they can’t be forcing people to be a part of a jury because it is a serious thing. It is not a joke thing.”
An elderly woman seconded the claim, noting that, “Mi nuh wah go court go assist nobody come out if it mean police might find my body a bush. Court business serious and sometimes the problem a di same people dem inna the court who wah yuh fi cooperate with them.”
Contrary to the views of those who assume it would be a dangerous experience, jurors who have been summoned and attended sessions willingly say it isn’t as bad as it is painted to be.
A woman who was summoned last year said it was pleasant.
“My experience was good. The court sessions actually took place on the dates indicated on the letters I received. As jurors, we were allowed coffee breaks as requested. The interviews were thorough, we were able to make notes and clearly understand or follow each event that took place dealing with the matter of the death,” she said.
“We were permitted time to discuss the interviews at the end of each day. On the downside, we assumed that some of the interviewees conspired to give false responses. Their interview response differed from the statements they gave in recollection of the event. Also, I have not received compensation for the duties I have performed.”
Last December, Livingston Cain, the juror accused of attempting to bribe the jury pool in the 2014 high-profile trial of dancehall entertainer Vybz Kartel, was found guilty.
Cain was convicted of perverting the course of justice contrary to common law when he appeared in the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Court on December 13.
Another individual said he moved to “cheat the system” just to avoid jury duty when he found out that he was summoned through the mail service.
“When I was called to be a juror some years ago, I got my doctor to write me something to say that I am of ill health. It was a murder trial and I wanted no part of it. I don’t see it as me not helping to get justice or whatever. If someone doesn’t commit, they can get other people to do so,” he told the Sunday Observer.
“My doctor link didn’t have a problem with getting me out of it because he agreed that there was a potential risk. If they don’t want people to go to those means then these thing should be voluntary, or people should have a choice to say, ‘Look, I am not comfortable doing this or I feel like I will be in danger’. It is as simple as that.”
Meanwhile, Director of Public Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn told the Sunday Observer that such reasoning is a mask to conceal people’s desire to avoid the “civic” duty.
“Nothing is going to happen. It’s a cop-out. Some of them just like to say they are afraid to get out of the duty. And some of them go to doctors who unethically give them sick certificates. I always say that it is a lack of civic pride. You can’t want justice and sit down in an armchair,” Llewellyn lamented.
The prosecutor further stated that she has never heard of any instance in which individuals selected as part of a jury have been targeted for their involvement in any case.
“I’ve never seen that in my practice. I have never really heard of a juror being attacked or anything like that, and that’s because of the system and how it is. These are a group of people and their contact information is kept literally under lock and key in the custody of the registrar,” she said.
“Apart from their name and occupation, there is no contact information for them that comes out into the public domain. And very often, in my experience, they are asked to leave the courtroom first and everybody else leaves after them.”
The Jury Duty Act stipulates who qualifies to serve. Any Jamaican living in the country between the ages of 18 and 69 who has a tax registration number (TRN) or is registered to vote can be selected for jury duty.
The CAD is responsible for issuing summonses to people for jury duty. Summonses are issued to the police for distribution to selected citizens who are expected to report to the court specified on the date stipulated.
The CAD also serves to restructure the institutional framework through which administrative services are provided to the courts and further strengthen judicial independence.
Last year director of client services, communications and information at the CAD Kadiesh Fletcher said, while there has been low turnout, the courts have been able to proceed with matters set for jury trials.
Fletcher also noted that jury duty presents the opportunity for people to learn about the court systems and help their fellow citizens get justice.
Llewellyn added that she has heard stories of attempts made to bribe jurors.
“And even then, that hardly happens, because usually, ethically, at the end of each day when they are sitting, the judge gives them a warning that they are not to discuss the case with anybody. And the judge warns that if anybody is trying to interfere with them, they are supposed to report it to the registrar.”