Juries in the 21st century

By Dr Jacqueline Horan

"Every trial lawyer must read this book," said Judge Andrew Haesler SC of Dr Jacqueline Horan's recent work, Juries in the 21st Century (Federation Press 2012). In the era of the googling juror and rapid technological change, Dr Horan argues that it is time to think about the contemporary role of the jury in our criminal justice system.

Juries Book Cover
Juries in the 21st Century Book Cover
World justice systems are being challenged by technology in a myriad of ways. Law enforcers are floundering with data security issues, as the Wikileaks saga highlights. The internet has removed jurisdictional boundaries, which has had a profound impact on laws such as defamation and privacy. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can publish on the internet with little fear of being held accountable for their words.

Criminal trials are not only benefitting from new types of technology available to investigators (such as DNA), but are also struggling to keep up with the demands of technology. CCTV footage released by police and social media sites relating to the disappearance of Jillian Meagher in Melbourne in 2012 played a vital role in the investigation. Following murder and rape charges being laid, vicious social media commentary threatened to undermine the ability of the defendant to receive a fair trial.

One of the major impacts that technology is having on jury trials is that it has altered the capabilities of jurors. The average juror of the 21st century has grown up immersed in technology. Many jurors will have had over 10 years at school where students are encouraged to take control of their learning by going online to investigate a subject and then ask questions of their teacher. In stark contrast, jurors are forbidden from undertaking their own inquiries. Jurors remain virtually mute in the courtroom, and they don't like it. Jurors want to be able to ask many questions and they want more visual aids to assist them with their decision-making.

Improving juror comprehension is not the only benefit to using visual aids. In one picture we can convey the meaning of a thousand words. In one crime scene animation, we can convey the meaning of a million words and reduce expensive trial time. Furthermore, digital technology can provide jurors with visual access to aspects of reality that would otherwise remain obscure. Jurors can be shown how a knife travels through the internal body organs of a victim without need for a verbal explanation of the complex principles of force at play. Given the benefits, it is surprising that animations are still rare in Australian courtrooms. Perhaps this is because those communicating with the jury are not schooled in technology. The study of law is dominated by words. As a result, jury trials are in a 20th century time warp.

Technology has thrown up numerous challenges to trial by jury. It also enables us, for the first time, to conduct cost-effective research that can identify how the jury system is working and what could be done to improve it. The Japanese and South Korean judiciary have taken the lead in scientifically monitoring the introduction of the mixed jury system (a mix of laypeople and judges deliberating together) into their legal systems. Research should be embraced as an exciting opportunity for law makers to positively reshape our jury system to ensure that it continues to thrive in the future.

Image: Juris in the 21 Century Book Cover. Cover illustration, The Trial 1960, by David F G Boyd OAM, The University of Melbourne Art Collection.
Reproduced courtesy of Lucinda and Cassandra Boyd, on display at Melbourne Law School, Level 5

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 9, June 2013.