Rafael Hui trial highlights the importance of jury service

The Rafael Hui corruption trial shows how we all need to understand this

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 11:41pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 10:12pm

The discharging of the jury in the Rafael Hui corruption trial before it has even started has, unsurprisingly, led to questions being asked about the nature of our city's jury system. Surely, people are saying, there must be a better way of doing things.

But the development comes as no surprise to those familiar with the difficulties involved in staging long-running trials.

Jurors are ordinary people plucked from their normal lives and thrust into a court drama in which they will have to make the most important decision - the verdict. Jury service usually lasts only two weeks. But this high-profile corruption trial could run for four months. How many people can, at short notice, put aside their jobs, family commitments, travel plans and health problems for such a long period of time?

This is why it is normal for judges in such cases to entertain requests from jurors who do not wish to participate. It is a delicate balancing act for the judge. As Mr Justice Andrew Macrae said on Monday, mere inconvenience is not a sufficient excuse. Jury service naturally inconveniences just about everyone eligible to sit. The system would break down if it became too easy for jurors to avoid service.

On the other hand, no judge wants to have an unhappy juror. A fair trial depends on jurors paying attention to the evidence. If a juror is sick, stressed about being absent from work or seething because he had to give up a dream holiday, it is better to find another one without such distractions.

There is always a danger that a juror or two will have to drop out during a long trial. The court can't afford to risk running out of jurors and having to start all over again. At least five jurors are required by law, but it is preferable to have seven or more, especially in such a high-profile case. It is easy to see why the court would rather start the trial with a full set of nine healthy jurors, rather than allowing some to depart before it begins.

During my 12 years as a reporter at London's Old Bailey I heard a wide variety of excuses put forward by jurors. My favourite was the need to stay at home to look after a sick budgie. Those put forward by jurors in the Hui trial ranged from caring for a newborn baby, going on honeymoon, visiting South Korea or attending the World Cup in Brazil. They were sensitively handled by the judge.

The system would break down if it became too easy for jurors to avoid service

Seeking to be excused is nothing new. A 1921 report of the first Old Bailey trial featuring female jurors reveals many requests to be excused. One was released because she needed to look after her tobacco business. Another complained she was nervous. The judge had a good response to that. "We are all more or less nervous," he said.

The jury system helps maintain confidence in the judicial process by acting as a safeguard against abuses of power and allowing public participation in trials. In England, where the system originated, concerns have been raised about jurors failing to understand complex fraud trials and being vulnerable to interference from defendants. It is now possible in England and Wales, in very exceptional circumstances, for a Crown Court trial to be held without a jury.

In my time in London I saw cases in which the jury foreman delivered the wrong verdict - and hastily corrected himself. There have been scandals about jurors getting drunk and having sex with each other while staying at hotels during overnight breaks in their deliberations. In one notorious case, jurors in a murder trial resorted to a Ouija board in a bid to find out who did it.

We have rarely encountered such problems in Hong Kong. Generally speaking, jurors here take their responsibilities very seriously. Our jurors tend to be busy people with demanding jobs. Many sit in court all day and then try to catch up with their work at night. There is a need for employers and jurors alike to be aware of how important a civil duty jury service is.

The jury system involves human beings unfamiliar with the court process. It will not always run smoothly, especially where long trials are concerned. But this is the price we must pay if we value our jury system.