The concept in principle of trial by jury is that it provides for the accused in criminal cases to be tried 'by their peers' - people drawn randomly from the community as a whole. In reality many people rarely serve on juries because they belong to exempted occupations and classes. A Law Reform Commission (LRC) proposal to remove some of these exemptions to widen the pool of potential jurors is welcome.
It is important because the jury system in Hong Kong does not adhere strictly to the principle of trial by one's peers. Jurors must have sufficient knowledge of the language of the proceedings, often English. In practice this means a Form Seven education is generally considered necessary, or Secondary Six when the new education structure comes into force in 2012. Many defendants, therefore, are unlikely to feel they are being tried by people from similar backgrounds to their own.
Students, clergy, pharmacists, ship crews, newspaper editors, discharged bankrupts, justices of the peace and the spouses of certain members of the judiciary are among those who would become eligible for jury service under the LRC proposals, subject to the right to apply to be excused or to have service deferred.
Exemptions would thus be considered on a case-by-case basis. This would enlarge our relatively small jury pool and ease the burden on those already liable to serve.
Trial by jury, a tradition that has evolved over hundreds of years, is treasured in our system of justice. Some exemptions from jury service are warranted on the grounds of essential or sensitive occupations, such as membership of the police force, but others should not be granted lightly. After all, those exempted or who seek to be excused would not lightly give up their own right to trial by jury.
Jury service is arguably the most important civic service anyone can perform. Pruning the list of exemptions would be a step in the right direction. As higher education standards become more uniform, the ultimate aim should be to make as many people as possible eligible for juries.