The Government has quietly suspended an ambitious programme of reform of the jury system as a result of “other priorities”.
The Working Group on Jury Service was established in 2018 to examine a range of issues including whether jurors should receive expenses and the potential widening of the jury pool.
Tougher laws to prevent jury tampering or intimidation were also to be considered by the group, as were specific laws against jurors disclosing the details of their deliberations after a trial.
It was also responsible for examining the abolition of the effective blanket ban on civil servants and certain professionals from jury service.
Under the current system, a wide range of people, including doctors, nurses, teachers and public servants, are excused “as of right” from jury service. This has led to concerns that juries are not truly representative of society.
The working group was established to examine 56 recommendations contained in a 2013 Law Reform Commission report. The report called for radical reform of a jury system which has remained essentially unchanged since the automatic exemption for women was abolished in 1976.
The working group was made up of senior officials from the Department of Justice, the Courts Service, Forensic Science Ireland, the Garda and the Director of Public Prosecutions' office.
It met a number of times between April 2018 and April 2019 before ceasing work without delivering a final report.
“Unfortunately other priorities then overtook the work of that group,” a department spokesman said when asked why it had ceased meeting.
The department said the modernisation of the courts system remains a priority and that the operation of the jury system will be further reviewed in the future. This will include “the work already carried out by the working group and any subsequent developments, in particular over the course of the pandemic,” the spokesman said. “Any reforms would of course require primary legislation.”
The working group had asked legal experts and various groups in the justice sector, such as the Law Society, to make submissions on the topic of jury reform before it ceased work. The unannounced cessation of its work has caused frustration among some of those who made submissions.
One of those was Dr Mark Coen, a law lecturer and jury expert in UCD, who made a submission with his colleague Dr Niamh Howlin.
He said it appears the department shut the working group down “and hoped nobody would notice”.
“The working group wrote directly to people, including me, seeking written submissions. However, the working group did not extend those of us who responded with written submissions, in February 2019, the courtesy of updates on what it was doing with those submissions, if anything,” Dr Coen told The Irish Times.
“The whole episode has not exactly been a model of best practice in conducting public consultation.”
Dr Coen said he emailed the department several times seeking an update on the group’s work but did not receive a response. He eventually contacted the department’s secretary general and was told the working group has been put “on hold” due to “competing priorities”.