Court ruling could lead to end of jury trial system


THE EUROPEAN Court of Human Rights is considering a case that could lead to the end of the current system of jury trial, The Irish Times has learned.

However, the Government has robustly defended the Irish jury system in a document submitted to the court.

This follows a decision last year from the human rights court, in a case against Belgium, that a man had not received a fair trial because the jury in his case had not given reasons for their decision.

If this decision becomes the authoritative view of the Strasbourg court it will have to be followed by the Government as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. This would lead to a fundamental change in the centuries-old system of jury trial.

The Irish observations state that the judgment “could have the most profound implications for the Irish legal system, where trial by jury is the ordinary method of trial provided for under the Constitution in the case of all prosecutions for non-minor offences”.

In the recently concluded Lillis case Mr Justice White made a reference to this case and the issue of a jury being asked for reasons for their decision. This suggestion was opposed by both counsel for the defence, Brendan Grehan, and for the prosecution, Mary Ellen Ring, who pointed to the Government’s position as outlined in its “observations”.

In the event, the jury indicated that they came to a verdict of manslaughter on the basis they did not consider the prosecution had proved Lillis intended to kill his wife.

The Belgian case involved a man called Richard Taxquet, who was convicted in October 2004 of murdering a government minister and attempting to murder his partner a decade earlier.

He claimed that his right to a fair trial had not been respected in that the verdict of the 12-person jury had not included a statement of reasons.

The court agreed, stating: “It is important, for the purpose of explaining the verdict both to the accused and to the public at large . . . to highlight the considerations that have persuaded the jury of the accused’s guilt or innocence and to indicate the precise reasons why each of the questions has been answered in the affirmative or the negative.”

It also found that his right to a fair trial had been violated in that he had not been able to examine witnesses who were anonymous.

This judgment was a “Chamber judgment” of the court, and so is not authoritative. It must be agreed by the 17-judge Grand Chamber to become part of the body of case law of the Strasbourg court.

Belgium, as the state party, has sent in a response to the judgment, and the Government has sent in its “third party observations”. It is likely that the UK government, which has a similar jury system to the Irish one, has done likewise. All of these will be considered by the Grand Chamber when coming to its decision.

In its “observations” the Government comments that there are very significant differences between the Irish and Belgian criminal proceedings, including that the Irish system is adversarial rather than inquisitorial.

It challenged the validity of the reasons outlined by the court for coming to its conclusion, stating that it did not take into sufficient account the diversity of criminal legal systems in contracting states; the fundamental nature, purpose and importance of the jury system in many contracting states; the long acceptance by citizens of that system; and its lengthy historical provenance.

The Government has also taken issue with the other part of the ruling at the European Court of Human Rights that the anonymous witness should have been available for cross-examination. It stated Ireland had an interest “in ensuring the protection of anonymous police informers, while being able to use the information they provide in a manner consistent with the guarantee of a fair trial”.