Why do We Have Jury Trials?

AuthorDavison, Charles
PositionFeature: Juries in Canada

Juries. To some, it may seem bizarre that 12 laypersons, untrained in the law, would be asked--required--to come into a courtroom and listen to the recounting of events about which they know nothing, involving people with whom they have no familiarity, and then make a decision about whether someone has committed a crime. And yet, jury trials are such a fundamental aspect of our criminal law that this right of every accused person facing serious charges is part of our Constitution.

Why do we use juries? What are their advantages and disadvantages? How do we decide who should sit on a jury?

An accused's may choose to select a trial by jury or a trial by a judge alone if he or she may be imprisoned for more than five years, and in some cases, where imprisonment between two and five years is a possible result. In the most serious cases --mainly, murder--the Criminal Code says the trial must be with a jury unless both the prosecution and the defence agree to have a trial by judge alone.

Sometimes, accused persons have firm views about whether they want a judge or a jury to hear their case, often the result of past experiences with the court system. An accused who has been in trouble in the past and feels she has not been treated fairly, when in front of a judge alone, will often insist on a jury trial, believing she will get a better hearing in front of 12 ordinary people. The reverse is sometimes true: an accused who feels he was wrongly convicted by a jury in the past may be more likely to ask for a "judge alone" trial.

Sometimes, simply as a matter of principle, accused persons want representatives of their community to pronounce judgment opposed to a judge. Sometimes the opposite occurs, where an accused declines his right to a jury because he does not want local people to know the details of what he is alleged to have done.

A defence lawyer who is advising an accused may have different considerations. Cases which are mainly about the law are probably better suited to the assessment of a judge. (In a jury trial, the judge explains to the jury what the applicable law is; the jury then has to apply that law to the evidence and determine the verdict).

Cases where the main question is what precisely took place between the people involved are sometimes better suited for a jury, but not always. One big difference between a trial with a judge and one with a jury is that a judge is required to give reasons for the verdict he reaches, while a jury...

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