CHANGES TO the justice system by the Queensland Government have been met with criticism by the state’s legal community, with claims that amending the law without consulting the profession has set an “alarming precedent”.
The announcement will see amendments to the Jury Act 2005 as well as the Criminal Code by introducing judge-only trials and majority verdicts by juries, and were introduced into Parliament this week.
In an open letter to Queensland Attorney-General Kerry Shine, state Law Society President Megan Mahon expressed her concern that the legal community had not been consulted on the changes. “In fact, we do see this as an alarming precedent,” she said.
“We are concerned at the ever-increasing tendency for important pieces of legislation which have potential dramatic effects on established rights to be put forward with cursory or no consultation.”
But Shine hit back at the statement, declaring that the reforms “have not sprung from thin air, they reflect existing practices in other jurisdictions”.
He said copies of the draft legislation have been sent to the Queensland Law Society, the Bar Association and heads of jurisdiction, with the Government welcoming any feedback.
Those drafts were circulated last week, with the first consultation occurring on Wednesday 20 August, just days before the legislation was introduced into Parliament on Monday 25 August.
A spokesperson from the Law Society said Wednesday’s meeting was not a consultation, but rather little more than a briefing, because they believed that the changes had already been made.
A spokesperson from the Attorney-General’s Department said the Law Society and the Bar Association had now provided their feedback and it had been taken away for consideration. “They had an opportunity to look at it this week, they provided their input and changes will be made if required,” he said.
The Law Society also expressed concern over the lack of evidence supporting the changes, which will see a majority verdict given if a jury cannot reach a unanimous decision after a deliberation of more than eight hours.
Mahon said: “It is our view that an eight-hour deliberation is by no means a long deliberation, given that the decision of the jury has such a huge and profound effect on the life and liberty of the defendant.”
In questioning how the Government came up with eight hours, Mahon said she hoped the timeframe had not been motivated by cost considerations.
Backing up the decision, the Attorney-General said there has been an increase in the number of hung juries. “In 2005-06, 4.4 per cent of trials resulted in hung juries — that increased to 5.6 per cent in 2006-07 and to 7.5 per cent in 2007-08,” he said. “If the number of hung juries can be reduced then this will result in fewer victims or witnesses having to again undergo the trauma of giving evidence in often distressing circumstances.”
Premier Anna Bligh announced the changes last week and said that the changes allowing a judge to hear a matter alone, will be particularly useful for the justice system — especially for cases of complexity and/or notoriety.
The Attorney-General backed up the move, with Shine stating that other jurisdictions have already made provisions for judge-only trials and that, “such a move was not out of step with national and international practice.”