Trial by jury 2
The jury trial system is a by-product of colonisation; the colonial government introduced jury trials in the then Gold Coast by the enactment of the Judicature Act of 1874.
The system has prevailed till today with minor modifications brought in over the years to fine-tune it to the demands of current developments.
Presently, jury trials owe their origin and legal basis to the 1992 Constitution.
Specifically, Article 19 (2) (a) of the Constitution provides that anyone charged with a criminal offence, except high treason or treason and which the punishment is death or imprisonment for life, shall be tried by a judge and jury.
With the abolition of the death penalty in Ghana, it remains to be seen what modifications will be made.
This is because, as per the constitutional provision alluded to above, the decision of the death penalty has to be unanimous, that is, all seven members of the jury have to agree.
It is expected that the changes will be made to reflect the current position.
To qualify as a juror, a citizen has to be a resident and literate person between the ages of 25 and 60 years.
This last provision has attracted some criticism as it has been argued by critics that the age bracket limits the number of persons eligible for jury duty.
It has been claimed that the qualification threshold limits the involvement of persons outside this age bracket (young people and adults over 60) from participating in this important citizen’s duty.
Especially in the case of adult citizens over 60 years of age, it has been suggested that the age cap unnecessarily deprives the country of the wisdom and experience that these adult persons can bring to the exercise.
As jurors are selected from ordinary citizens, it goes without saying that there has to be a pool to choose from.
Court officials therefore prepare a list of eligible citizens from which prospective jurors can be picked to serve.
The list is then publicly displayed to allow for the nominated persons to apply to opt out if they have good reasons to do so.
The final names are then put in a box and are randomly drawn until the final figure seven is reached.
At the commencement of trial, the chosen jurors are asked to elect their leader (foreman) whose main function is to act as a liaison officer between the juror and the court.
A unique feature of the jury system is the opportunity granted accused persons to challenge the participation of the selected jurors.
The accused person has the right to object to any three of the selected jurors without giving any reasons.
Also, the accused person can further challenge the participation of a selected juror ‘for cause’ – i.e., give a reason why his/her participation is objected to.
The main grounds for such objections include prejudice or bias, personal characteristics such as age, health, mental condition etc.
Potential jurors could also be objected to on grounds of previous convictions.
There has been an ongoing debate as to the desirability of the jury system.
For those who argue for the continuation of the status quo (i.e. maintain its deployment) their central and most pivotal argument remains that the system allows ordinary citizens to participate in the administration of justice.
They say it offers citizens a sense of belonging and, to a larger extent, a feeling of importance.
This, it is argued, infuses an element of democratisation and legitimacy to the system.
Some of the criticism of the jury system will be examined here.
One of the major arguments of the critics is the narrowness of the band of individuals that can be called to do jury service.
This is because a significant number of public figures are exempted from jury service: the President, Members of Parliament, Speaker of Parliament, Judges, Magistrates, and Newspaper Editors etc.
They (critics) claim that the exclusion of such personalities deprives the system of much needed expertise and knowledge.
Despite these criticisms of the jury service, it is my considered view that the advantage of its continued operation far outweighs the drawbacks.
Given its role in allowing for citizen participation in the administration of justice, it should be reformed rather than abolished.
A much-needed reform is the need to expand the pool from which jurors can be selected.
The writer is a lawyer.