Lawyers attack decision to do without jury

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 June, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 June, 1996, 12:00am

A coroner who chose to hear the Pat Sin Leng inquest alone because he wanted 'a set of reasoned findings' yesterday defended his decision.

Coroner John Saunders broke with tradition when he opened the inquest on May 13 without a jury.

Mr Saunders said without a jury he could find 'the most just, expeditious and economical manner of determining' the events surrounding the deaths of three students and two teachers.

But his decision has been attacked by members of the legal profession, including several Crown prosecutors, who believe he overstepped his authority.

Independent legislator and barrister Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee said: 'The presence of a jury shows implicit faith in the system.

'He has the discretion to do this, but it is not in the public interest in a case this large. If it is a matter of just making it go faster, it is very important the public feels perfectly sure a full and proper inquiry has been done.' Mr Saunders argued the public interest was served because he was able to complete the lengthy hearing in 10 days, instead of the three weeks it could have taken with a jury.

Juries are required at inquests where a death occurs in custody. In all other cases it is the coroner's decision whether a jury is empanelled.

In most Australian states and in New Zealand, juries are no longer used by coroners. In England, juries are retained to 'merely determine the formal findings', not make recommendations, the coroner said.