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  • Writer's pictureKelly Leung

Reflections on the criminal justice system: juror competence

In this candid article, I revisit my involvement in a criminal case, which recently reached a pivotal point with a retrial. More can be read about my experiences at the very start of the trial in my earlier article on our website. Rather than delving into the intricacies of the trial process, I aim to offer a personal perspective on my experience in criminal law, reflecting particularly on the jury participating in this case.



Author: Kelly Leung, Trainee Solicitor



Questionable Charges of Robbery:

The trial centered around our client who was charged with robbery, accused of being the mastermind behind the crime. However, it became apparent that our client was not present at the crime scene, and the evidence against him was questionable at best. The only two pieces of evidence against our client were 1) his fingerprints found on the knives which were used to commit the robbery (note: this was a joint robbery where the others involved were convicted earlier. One of which was our client’s flatmate who obtained the knives from our client’s flat to commit the robbery) and 2) a highly unreliable witness who admitted to lying during testimony. Despite the lack of strong and credible evidence, the jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict, albeit without unanimous agreement.


A Tragic Turn of Events:

Once the verdict was set out, we prepared for the Sentencing and Mitigation hearing the following week; but a shocking and devastating turn of events came to pass. A fax from a hospital, in the form of a memo from the court clerk, reached our legal team, informing us that our client had passed away just a few hours before the scheduled hearing. He had taken his own life in his prison cell, seemingly unable to bear the thought of remaining incarcerated for another moment, particularly when he continued to maintain his innocence.


Contemplating the Jury System:

This experience led me to ponder the extent to which jurors comprehend and engage with the entire court proceedings. Specifically, I questioned the efficacy of conducting court proceedings in English, particularly for jurors who may not have a strong command of the language. Jurors are randomly selected through a lottery system, and it is not uncommon for individuals to express reservations about their English proficiency when summoned. However, the benchmark for competency in an English court is often set at a level equivalent to obtaining a high school diploma in Hong Kong.


The Consequences of Incomplete Understanding:

Considering such language proficiency limitations, jurors may only grasp parts of the arguments and evidence presented by the defense and prosecution. Moreover, it is not uncommon for Counsels, especially English native speakers, to produce analogies and metaphors to better present a point they are making. Such use of language adds to the struggle some jurors may have in fully grasping the meaning of what is said if their English language level is average at best. Such limitations raise concerns about their ability to fully comprehend the intricacies of a case and make an informed decision. Is it fair to place someone's fate in the hands of jurors who may not fully comprehend the nuances of the legal proceedings? This disparity in understanding appears to create an inequitable system which could impact the pursuit of justice.


Language is only Part of Juror Competency:

The issue of juror competency demands closer examination. While language proficiency is undoubtedly an important factor, other aspects, such as legal literacy and the ability to comprehend complex evidence, should also be considered. Finding a balance between a diverse jury and ensuring a fair understanding of the case should be priority above all else. To enhance the fairness and effectiveness of the jury system, there is a need to establish clearer guidelines and evaluation criteria for juror competency, going beyond language proficiency alone. Unfortunately, there currently seem to be no such voices or initiatives in the judiciary to review the current system, let alone enhance it.


How I Look Back on This Trial:

The retrial experience and the tragic outcome of the case have left an indelible mark on my perspective of the criminal justice system. The issue of juror competency, particularly in cases conducted in English, demands attention, perhaps even urgently so. As we strive for a more equitable and just legal system, we would do well to revisit the criteria for juror selection, emphasizing that jurors be selected who can guarantee a comprehensive understanding of the proceedings. It will certainly be challenging to get started on this though, but we must in my opinion, so we may move closer to a system that ensures fairness, transparency, and the pursuit of justice for all.


 

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article it is general in nature and does not constitute legal advice of any kind. You should seek your own personal legal advice before taking legal action. We accept no liability whatsoever for loss arising out of the use or misuse of this article.


For specific advice about your situation, please contact:



Kelly Leung 

Trainee Solicitor

+852 2388 3899

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