Sem. Hon. Claire Hepburn/ Attorney General
By Clunis Devaney
NASSAU, Bahamas – Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Senator the Hon. Claire Hepburn said in the Senate on Wednesday (December 19, 2007) that when it comes to public safety, “the Government will not be distracted from its commitment to the Bahamian people.”
Attorney General Hepburn said the Bill to amend the Juries Act “is only part of that commitment.”
She moved for the second reading and committal of the Bill to allow for smaller juries in non-capital cases.
“We say that it is related to public safety because the jury system is a critical component of the entire criminal justice system,” said the Attorney General. “Ultimately all of the serious criminal matters brought before our courts, which are not withdrawn or in respect of which the defendants do not plead guilty, will have to be determined by a Bahamian jury, composed of men and women entitled to vote in this country and not otherwise disqualified or exempted from jury service.
“This is an entrenched constitutional right, which this amendment does not in any way interfere with. Any improvements in the criminal justice system will ultimately contribute to an increased sense of public safety.”
The amendments to the Juries Act are designed to achieve four basic things:
? First, to decrease the number of jurors in non-capital criminal cases from 12 to nine. The capital cases in Bahamian law are charges of murder and treason, in manner authorized by law.
? Secondly, the amendments will decrease the number of peremptory challenges from 10 to seven in all non-capital cases. A peremptory challenge is a process by which a defendant or his attorney can remove a juror whose number has been selected without giving a reason for that removal.
? Thirdly, the amendments will continue the requirement for majority verdicts to be two-thirds of the jurors empanelled. The effect being that, as the empanelled jurors would now be nine, a majority verdict would be a minimum of six jurors agreeing to the verdict of guilty or not guilty. A verdict of five to four, either way, would not constitute a verdict.
? Fourthly, the amendments will provide for, in the event of a juror, after being empanelled, dying, becoming ill or failing to appear during a trial, the judge having the discretion to continue with eight jurors, instead of having to discharge the jury.
The Attorney General said that the amendment has no impact on any capital case, in which a unanimous verdict is required for a guilty verdict, although a majority verdict is sufficient for a finding of not guilty.
“As 12 jurors would continue to sit in capital cases, the majority verdict would be two-thirds of 12, or eight jurors, voting not guilty,” said the Attorney General.
“With regards to a juror failing to appear in court, for whatever reason, this will have no effect on capital cases “as the Juries Act requires, as recently reiterated by the Court of Appeal, for all 12 jurors to return a verdict; a fact which necessitated the last amendment to the Juries Act, in 2006, to provide for alternate jurors, a 13th juror so to speak, to sit along with the jury in the event that one of the 12 jurors is unable to continue to sit,” she stated.
Attorney General Hepburn reiterated that the amendments do not interfere with any constitutional right, entrenched or otherwise.
“The benefits from these amendments are expected to be increased efficiency within the trial process itself, less time being required to both empanel jurors and less consequential inconveniences to employers who have to pay for and endure the loss of their employees to jury service, sometimes for up to a month at a time, for some criminal trials,” she said.
“As I have stated, these incremental improvements in the efficiency of the criminal justice system in and of themselves will not solve the deep seated social issues which underlay a substantial percentage of our criminal matters; but, as a part of a continued, sustained focus on criminal justice matters (a focus being brought to bear on the entire justice system), these amendments will play their part in the reform of the criminal justice system,” Attorney General Hepburn added.