Majority Verdicts – How do they work?

Our criminal justice system in Australia has, for hundreds of years, always known that an accused person tried before a jury could only be found guilty of the offence if the verdict of the jury was unanimous.

Majority verdicts were introduced in NSW following the prevalence of “hung juries” in criminal trials in NSW. It is estimated that over 80 trials in 2005 resulted in hung juries.

The recent Murder trial of Robert Xie has highlighted the impact of “majority verdicts” in criminal trials.

Robert Xie was convicted of murdering 5 of his family members. With 3 previous trials (one of them going for 6 months), the fourth trial seemed to be heading that way.

After 11 days of deliberation, and no unanimous verdict, the jury indicated that they were able to reach a majority verdict. 11 jurors found Xie guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

 

What is a “hung jury”?

A hung jury is jury panel that cannot agree upon a verdict by unanimous decision after an extended period of time.

A unanimous verdict is a verdict agreed upon by the entire jury panel. The purpose of majority verdicts was to prevent lone rogue jurors to force a hung jury.

Majority verdicts is only available if it is a state offence and not a Commonwealth offence.

A Commonwealth Offence includes:

  • Forfeiture of child pornography material and child abuse
  • Offences against the Commonwealth government
  • Offences relating to postal services
  • Piracy
  • Importation of drugs and Tier 1 goods e.g. steroids
  • Offences relating to the administration of justice
  • Obstructing or hindering the performance of public protection services and other services

 

What is the role of a Juror in a Criminal Trial?

The purpose of the jury service is for members of the community to play an active role in the justice system. Depending on the type of case it is the number of jurors will differ. For criminal cases, there are normally 12 jurors or a minimum of 11 jurors on a jury panel. It is up to the Jury to determine whether the accused is guilty “beyond reasonable doubt”. Jurors have a duty to:

  • Be open-minded, fair and impartial
  • Not discuss the case with other people other than those on the jury
  • Not post any material or discussion from the jury service on social media
  • Not use any material or research tool to find out further information relating to the trial

After hearing all the facts, the jurors are led to the jury deliberation room to consider the verdict. During this process, it is important to respect the opinions and views of your fellow jurors to reach a fair verdict.Consider all evidence carefully

In a criminal proceeding in NSW, a majority verdict is when the verdict is agreed upon by 11 of the 12 jurors, or agreed to by 11 of the 11 jurors. There must be a minimum of 11 jurors who agree to the verdict. However, the jury panel may deliver a majority verdict if a unanimous verdict cannot be reached after a reasonable time (8 hours), at a time the judge has determined that it is reasonable for a majority verdict for the trial and the court believes that it is unlikely that the jurors will reach a unanimous decision.

In other states, Northern Territory, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia majority verdicts can be reached if 10 of the 12 jurors agree to the verdict. If the trial is a murder trial in Victoria, Tasmania or South Australia, the verdict must be unanimous.

 

Could Majority Verdicts lead to innocent people being Convicted?

Lawyers and civil libertarians warned that majority verdicts could lead to wrongful convictions.

However, Victims of Crime spokesman Howard Brown said majority verdicts would spare some victims the ordeal of having to give evidence at retrials.

“There is sometimes a situation where we may have three or four trials and the strain that is placed on victims and their families and their loved ones and their supporters is just absolutely unbelievable,” Mr Brown told reporters.

Law Society President John McIntyre attacked the government’s decision.

“I think the effect of this change is likely to lead to more innocent people being wrongfully convicted,” Mr McIntyre said.