Tuesday, March 30, 2010

High-ranking clerics face jury duty

TOP-RANKING clerics including cardinals and archbishops will have to explain themselves if they want to be excused from jury service, under plans to be published today.

Law reformers have proposed scrapping a blanket excusal for clergy and many professions from acting as jurors because they believe there aren’t enough middle-class people deciding the outcomes of trials.

The LRC suggests the current wide range of persons, either ineligible or excused, from jury service should be reduced.

The commission proposes existing measures should be replaced with potential jurors being allowed to be excused "with good cause" on an individual basis.

In a new consultation paper to be published later today, the law reform body also warns the issue of jurors – obtaining independent information about a defendant or a crime – is emerging as a significant cause of concern. It points out the availability of wireless technology, such as mobile phones, might allow jurors in a jury room to search online for information about an accused.

Trials by jury are used in all major criminal cases and a few civil actions including claims of defamation/libel.

Among people currently ineligible from sitting on a jury are practising solicitors and barristers, gardaí, court officials, members of the defence forces and prison officers.

Ray Byrne, director of research at the Law reform Commission, said the old list system of exempted professions had become "too wide" and was skewing juries away from the middle class.

"It used to be fine when it was just doctors, lawyers and priests," he said. "But more and more professions kept getting added to the list every time the jury laws were updated."

Mr Byrne argued the present regulations were standing in the way of juries being properly representative of Irish society.

"There is a skewing away from educated and middle class people," he said. "The current system allows middle-class, educated professionals to easily get out of jury service."

While the LRC has provisionally recommended the current ban for many professions remains in place, it suggested that some, including the members of the defence forces, be allowed to sit on juries in future.

It acknowledged there is widespread concern the current process for jury selection does not result in juries that are representative of the community.

The new consultation paper on jury service will be launched by the Director for Public Prosecutions, James Hamilton, in Dublin this evening. It is the first wide-ranging analysis of jury service since the passing of the Juries Act 1976.

Over 22,000 people out of a total of 41,500 summoned for jury service in 2007 were excused, largely on account of their jobs.

The commission suggests the Courts Service should provide jurors with information why they should not carry out independent investigations or internet searches about a case.

It has also invited submissions on the possibility of paying expenses to jurors, especially self-employed persons on a jury.

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