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REVISITING THE JURY SYSTEM IN INDIA

INTRODUCTION

Decades ago in India, the Britishers deemed it fit to introduce a group of 12 or so members, which they called the ‘jury’ in a courtroom, to replace the traditional Panchayati Raj system. But this system was not here to stay. What followed were numerous controversies and questions raised about the juries` efficacy, including Mahatma Gandhi in his book Young India[1], which eventually boiled down to its abolition. This blog aims to explore the jury system in India, analyse its advantages and highlight its disadvantages.

What is the jury system?

Juries are composed of citizens who are called upon by the court and are briefed about the applicable laws to decide in a trial on the submission of relevant facts and evidence.  It was formally introduced in India through the Indian Jury Act of 1826[2] and later through the Indian Penal Code 1861[3] and Chapter XXIII of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1882[4].

CASE IN POINT: K.M Nanavati v State of Maharashtra[5]

K.M. Nanavati, a naval commander, was charged with the murder of Prem Ahuja, the lover of his wife Sylvia. After a jury initially found Nanavati not guilty of murder, the case was retried as a bench trial after the Bombay High Court overturned the verdict.

The court ruled that the murder in this instance was premeditated and intentional and the defendant was sentenced under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code[6]. According to Justice Shelat, the jury’s verdict was bizarre, irrational, and in no way consistent with the available evidence or the case’s facts. The jury in this instance was clouded by their empathy for a dejected husband.

Why was it abolished in India?

It is important to note that Juries were limited to very few presidencies (particularly Calcutta) and further, were on a gradual decline in India even before the period before its abolishment. This was true of England as well, where most of its criminal cases were tried without a jury and by a Magistrate[7].  

The Code of Criminal Procedure 1973[8], which was suggested by the 14th Law Commission’s Report in 1958, eliminated jury trials. According to the survey of this report, the people of India were strongly for the abolition of the jury system with only two witnesses in favour of its continuance[9].

The following could be possible reasons for its abolishment:

  1. Scope of Internal/External Pressure and Biases
  2. Lack of Legal and Intellect
  3. Lack of well-qualified and professional Jurors
  4. Plausibility of Jury Nullification

SCOPE OF INTERNAL/EXTERNAL PRESSURE AND BIASES

As observed[10]in the K.M. Nanavati case[11], external pressures of media and politics can often influence the decision of a jury. The public`s opinions and emotions, attached to such a case and being members of the public themselves juries encounter such pressures from around to take a particular decision[12]. It is worse when social factors such as racial and gender prejudices, which are commonly found in members of the patriarchal society we live in, cloud the judgement of the jurors. In India especially, jury decisions were often shaped by communal fears and caste differences. This phenomenon is stark in the United States where a juror in the case of an African-American Texas death row inmate[13] claimed “Statistics show more violent crimes are committed by certain races. I believe in statistics.” 

Lack of Legal and Intellect

The jury is not appropriate for complex fraud cases and ones which require them to understand complex distinctions in law. It is evident the subject matters of complex financial crimes require in-depth expertise and legal technicalities such as the difference between culpable homicide and murder and the procedural aspects of criminal law require a long time to fully understand and apply. This was observed in the case of Abdul Rahim v. The King Emperor[14], where it was found that the jury had admitted inadmissible evidence and was subjected to cases of substantial jury misdirection and non-direction.

The Roskill Report (1986)[15] therefore, recommended that the jury be replaced by a judge sitting with expert assessors in such cases.

LACK OF WELL-QUALIFIED AND PROFESSIONAL JURORS

This might have been one of the key causes of the jury’s elimination in India at the time. From the findings of the Bihar Committee, it could be observed that the motives of such jurors were payment and the validation they got by being on the jury[16]. There were not “enough of the right class of people,” according to Justice K.N. Wanchoo, to serve as jurors[17]. This was rooted in the low rates of literacy and a recovering social class subjected to inflammatory temperaments that are vastly different from functioning juries in England or the US.  Even in the well-developed districts, it is posited that jurors could have been swayed by extra-judicial considerations.

Plausibility of Jury Nullification

It describes the jury’s purposeful and knowing disregard for the facts or reluctance to follow the law because it believes the law to be erroneous or disapproves of its strict application to the particular case. Lord Lansdowne, thought of it as a class and caste problem and was surprised by juries’ unwillingness to convict defendants in capital cases and therefore started work on reforming the CrPC. This is a pernicious plausibility to be allowed because the jury is not democratically accountable and the nullification is an exercise of arbitrariness as juries often do not have the full idea of important details which the prosecution does to ensure a fair trial. It takes just one juror in a criminal trial to dissent to block an all-important conviction and can singlehandedly undo legislation.

Does trial by jury still exist?

Sections 19[18] and 20[19] of The Parsis Matrimonial and Divorce Act of 1936, state that disputes relating to divorce within the community are dealt with in a system akin to a trial by jury. The Supreme Court in November 2022 agreed to list a plea challenging this act[20]. Given the general societal stigma and inequitable standards for women concerning divorce, this act gives jurors the power to base their decisions on such standards that deviate from principles of justice fairness and equity.          

Would a jury system work in present-day India?

It is interesting to wonder if this system would function well in contemporary times in the Indian judicial setting, with an increase in awareness, education and overall growth and development. Though it is safe to assume that the quality of jurors and accuracy of verdicts would be better, India sadly is still exposed to external communal and political pressure and owing to a diverse demographic it is exposed to various social ideals. Hence, it is hard to see juries work efficiently in a modern-day Indian courtroom.

CONCLUSION

The power to tip the scale of justice from either guilty to innocent or liable to not rests in the hands of ordinary people like us, sitting in a courtroom on a particular day, in a jury system. Lawmakers and Judges in India witnessed this first-hand and decided to abolish this practice before it was too late. The question is, was it good riddance? So far the evidence seems to suggest it was.

Author(s) Name: S. Sri Ganesh Prasad

Reference(s):

[1] Mahatma Gandhi, Young India (1931)

[2] Indian Jury Act1826, s 3,4,5

[3] Indian Penal Code 1861, s 304

[4]Code of Criminal Procedure 1861, s 322

[5] K.M. Nanavati v State of Maharashtra (1962) AIR SC 605

[6] Indian Penal Code 1861, s 302

[7] Sir Patrick Devlin, Trial by Jury (Hamlyn Lectures Series 8, N. M. Tripathi Private Ltd. Bombay 1956) 49

[8] Criminal Procedure Code 1973, s 322

[9] Law Commission of India, Reform of Judicial Administration (Law Com. No. 14 1958) 14 <https://cdnbbsr.s3waas.gov.in/s3ca0daec69b5adc880fb464895726dbdf/uploads/2022/08/2022080514.pdf> accessed 05 February 2023

[10] Lee John Curley, et. al, ‘Juries are subject to all kinds of biases when it comes to deciding on a trial’ (The Conversation, 28 February 2022) <https://theconversation.com/juries-are-subject-to-all-kinds-of-biases-when-it-comes-to-deciding-on-a-trial-176721> accessed 05 February 2023

[11]  K.M. Nanavati (n 4) at 605

[12]Vir Sanghvi, ‘Karanjia and his Blitz (Hindustan Times, 03 February 2008) <https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/karanjia-and-his-blitz/story-6Ql5IRj8Jzjk6h73sRHq2K.html> accessed 07 February 2023

[13] Adam Liptak, ‘Supreme Court Rejects Case on Juror Said to Harbor Racial Bias’ (The New York Times, 18 April 2022) <https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/18/us/politics/supreme-court-racial-bias-juror.html> accessed 05 February 2023

[14] Abdul Rahim v The King Emperor (1946) 48 BOMLR 473

[15] T.J Christian and K.D Edwing, ‘The Roskill Report on Fraud Trials’  (1986) 45 (2) The Cambridge Law Journal 175-179

[16] Reform of Judicial Administration (n 9) at 17

[17] James Jaffe, ‘Not The Right People: Why Jury Trials were Abolished in India’ (SLR, 01 October 2020) <www.sociolegalreview.com/post/not-the-right-people-why-jury-trials-were-abolished-in-india> accessed 07 February 2023

[18] Parsis Matrimonial and Divorce Act 1936, s 19

[19] Parsis Matrimonial and Divorce Act 1936, s 20

[20] K Rajgopal, ‘SC agrees to hear plea against a pre-Independence Parsi personal law’ (The Hindu, 27 November 2017) <www.thehindu.com/news/national/sc-agrees-to-hear-plea-against-a-pre-independence-Parsi-personal-law/article20789308.ece > accessed 07 February 2023