Jury is still out on mainland court reforms

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 December, 2004, 12:00am

Trial by jury is widely regarded as a fundamental requirement for the fair and objective consideration of certain court cases. The mainland's bid to strengthen its very limited jury system is therefore a positive move.

But the way in which the jurors will operate will be different from their counterparts in common law jurisdictions such as Hong Kong. It remains to be seen whether the reforms will achieve the declared aim of making mainland courts less corrupt and more independent.

The jurors, otherwise known as assessors, are to sit alongside judges and contribute to the findings of the court. They will be used in important civil and administrative law cases, as well as criminal trials.

Assessors have been used as part of the mainland's system for many years. But they have played a minor role and in parts of the mainland they are hardly used at all. The stepping-up of their duties and status is part of wider reforms intended to make the dispensing of justice more professional, efficient and independent.

The presence of a number of jurors in court - instead of just a judge - could act as an important safeguard against corruption. It is also possible that the new scheme, which is to begin next year, will bring about greater public involvement in court decisions and therefore allow litigants and defendants to feel that they are being tried by their peers.

Rather than being picked at random, the jurors will be elected and must meet certain standards. They will effectively become 'professional' jurors, serving a five-year term. Candidates must have had at least two years of university education and will receive special training.

Critics of the jury system in countries where it is well established may envy such arrangements. In the west, concerns are often raised that jurors fail to understand the more difficult cases and sometimes return perverse verdicts.

But the value of bringing members of the public into the decision-making process in court cannot be overstated. It is especially important in serious criminal cases, as it helps to ensure a fair trial.

Whether the mainland system will work in this way remains in doubt. Much will depend on the election process and the extent to which the jurors are - in practice - able to influence the outcome of court proceedings.

The five-year term will enable them to gain experience and hopefully become expert legal decision-makers. But their full-time role and payment by the court means they will effectively become part of the establishment. This will make it less easy for them to act independently and as a voice of the people.

Other reforms in the pipeline are perhaps more important, including efforts to make the judges more professional and impartial. But the strengthening of even a limited jury system is a move in the right direction.