Anybody who has had to wait for criminal justice in New Zealand will welcome most elements of the bill introduced to Parliament this week by Justice Minister Simon Power. It takes some practical steps to resolve cases a good deal faster than the year they have been taking in the District Court and the 16 months in the High Court. In future, defence lawyers will be required to identify issues in dispute before the trial begins, hearings will be able to proceed in the absence of a defendant who has no reasonable excuse for not turning up, and procedural co-operation – or the lack of it – can be considered at the sentencing. But one element of Mr Power’s bill may be a step too far. It would withdraw the right to jury trials for charges that carry less than three years’ imprisonment. At present, anybody charged with an offence punishable with at least three months’ jail can choose to be tried by a jury or by a judge alone. To raise the threshold from three months to three years is too drastic. The right to be judged by fellow citizens rather than an officer of the law is important, particularly when someone’s liberty is at stake.
But they get it wrong when they say
Arguably, the jury option should be available whenever the Crown seeks a prison sentence, which might have the incidental benefit that prosecutors would seek alternatives that reduced this country’s costly imprisonment rate.
What the Crown seeks as punishment may not be determined until the full facts of the cases are presented. A parent choosing the right to trial by jury will not know for sure what punishment the Crown is seeking
The bottom line is that parents should have the right to a jury trial for a serious charge of assaulting a child. Unfortunately a jury may bring more common sense to the law than some judges will – and we say this from actual case experience.