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Media Release - Blind or deaf jurors (5 April 2004)

The New South Wales Law Reform Commission today released a Discussion Paper [PDF, 1Mb] which deals with the question of whether people who are blind or deaf should be eligible to serve as jurors. At present the practice in New South Wales is to exclude such persons, on the basis that their disability prevents them from performing the duties of a juror, such as hearing, understanding and assessing the evidence, and communicating with other jurors to reach a verdict.

Commenting on the Discussion Paper, Justice Michael Adams, Chairperson of the Law Reform Commission, said,

The question may seem a surprising one. How can a deaf person hear the evidence presented in court, or an unsighted person judge the credibility of witnesses if unable to view their demeanour?

Many would argue that to allow such people on juries risks breaching a fundamental tenet of our criminal justice system, namely that an accused person be given a fair trial. That principle could be compromised if some jurors have been unable to comprehend fully the evidence.

Even if, for example, a deaf person were able to use the services of a sign language interpreter in court, how would this work in the jury room where it is a long-established practice that no stranger may enter?

At the same time, both blind and deaf persons have had to acquire the ability to understand and communicate with others with whom they are in daily contact. It is quite possible that the skills they have developed to do so can bring valuable insights into the jury room.

Disability groups can, however, point to the experience in the United States where, in some States, people who are deaf or blind are accommodated successfully as jurors. These groups argue that jury duty, like voting, is a right and obligation of citizenship, and that denying equal opportunity for participation amounts to a denial of citizenship. They argue that it is an assumption - based on prejudice or ignorance - that deaf or blind people are unable to perform the tasks required of a juror, and one that ignores the coping mechanisms, strategies and new technologies used by such people to communicate and make decisions every day.

The Discussion Paper explores the arguments for and against altering the present position in New South Wales. The Commission invites submissions from interested individuals and associations. The closing date for submissions is 30 April 2004.

Enquiries should be directed to Justice Michael Adams on 6623 3658 (before 10am or after 4pm) or Professor Michael Tilbury on 9228 8230.