Clampdown on jury 'opt-outs'
Professionals will need good excuse to avoid duty at trials
PEOPLE who work in the professions, ranging from doctors to senior clerics, will have to explain themselves if they want to be excused from jury service under new proposals from a legal watchdog.
The recommendation to remove the 'blanket' exemption that currently operates to excuse many middle-class people from serving on jury panels is outlined in the latest consultation paper from the Law Reform Commission (LRC).
The document looks set to pave the way for the most radical overhaul of juries in more than 30 years.
A more 'modern-day' concern was also raised over the availability of wireless technology, such as iPhones, which might allow jurors in the jury room search online for information about an accused.
The paper recommends making it a criminal offence for a juror to make inquiries during the course of a trial, beyond the evidence presented in court.
For the first time, jury service may also be opened up to non-Irish citizens, such as people from the EU or long-term residents, as long as they are fluent in English.
Justice Catherine McGuinness, the president of the LRC, said the aim was to ensure that juries were more representative of the entire population.
"The jury should at least have the possibility of reflecting the changing population there is in Ireland," said the former Supreme Court judge.
The present laws dating from 1976 give TDs, senators, civil servants, army personnel, priests, nuns, doctors, nurses and vets an automatic pardon from serving.
This also extends to anyone working in a solicitor's office, lay people in garda stations, lighthouse keepers, ship captains, airline pilots, university lecturers and full-time students.
It is expected that some professions, including gardai or those involved in the judicial system, such as solicitors, would still be pardoned.
The new consultation paper, which is due to be launched by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) James Hamilton tonight, proposes replacing the blanket pardon with providing a "good cause" for not taking part, regardless of the person's position. This might include illness, pre-booked holidays or a person being self-employed.
"They should have to explain and not automatically be left out," Justice McGuinness said.
The DPP has previously raised concerns that the wide variety of exemptions has resulted in many professions and occupations being under-represented on juries.
"The current system allows middle-class, educated professionals to get out of jury service easily," said Ray Byrne, director of research at the LRC.
In 2007, figures from the Courts Service showed that out of 41,500 people summoned for jury service in Dublin, more than 22,000 were excused.
Further submissions from members of the public are also being sought on whether the public availability of the jury panel lists may leave them open to intimidation.
Another issue being considered is whether some expenses should be paid to jurors, particularly the self-employed.
Members of the public are now invited to make submissions on the paper through the commission's website or by post.