Jury’s out on Norwegian courts

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Norway’s jury system could be set for an overhaul after the Conservative party (Høyre) gained more support for its push to change juries’ role in court trials. Currently, appeal cases where the charge carries a sentence of more than six years’ jail time are heard by a jury, but judges can set a jury’s decision aside and start the case over if they disagree with the verdict.

Juries sit in Court of Appeal (Lagmannsretten) cases where the sentence would be more than six years in jail. Judges are increasingly overturning juries' verdicts, prompting the Conservatives to call for the system to be overhauled. PHOTO: domstol.no

Juries sit in Court of Appeal (Lagmannsretten) cases where the sentence would be more than six years in jail. Judges are increasingly overturning juries’ verdicts, prompting the Conservatives to call for the system to be overhauled. PHOTO: domstol.no

The leader of the Parliamentary Justice Committee, the Labour Party’s (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap) Hadia Tajik agreed on Wednesday the main rationale for the jury system does not hold when you see how it operates in practice.

“The jury system such as we know it today has outplayed its role,” Tajik told newspaper Aftenposten. “The jury determines in serious criminal cases whether the defendant is guilty, without having to give any grounds. It allows no possibility of verifying their consideration. In cases which concern violence and sexual offenses, this comes to the table. I am not alone in being surprised over why many rape cases, where the defendant is sentenced in court, end up with acquittal in the court of appeal where the jury decides guilt.”

Judges are increasingly setting juries’ decisions aside. Between 2005 and 2010, an average of ten jury verdicts were set aside each year. Over the past four years, 53 verdicts were set aside.

A jury reaches its decision alone without any discussion with the judge. If a jury finds a defendant guilty, the judges can overturn the verdict on the basis of insufficient evidence. If a jury rules not guilty, the judges can override the decision if they unanimously believe the defendant is guilty beyond doubt.

Replace juries
Tajik told Aftenposten juries should be replaced with a system where professional judges and lay judges sit in court together. “Under the democratic rule of law, lay judges also have a role when important cases will be decided,” she said. “For Ap, the courts’ popular anchoring has always been important. You can safeguard that by replacing the jury with a lay judge court. Professional judges and lay people judging together can also strengthen the quality of judgments, by lay people assisting with other perspectives than jurists, and with judges ensuring consistent grounds.”

The Conservatives welcomed Ap’s support. Both the Conservatives and its government partner, the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) agreed the scheme needed to be overhauled, but the FrP wants to keep the jury system. It would rather change procedural rules connected to summing up, deliberations, rationales and the Supreme Court’s ability to overrule questions of guilt.

Conservative Anders Werp, deputy leader of the Justice Committee, said Høyre would not form an alliance with Ap to form a majority over the issue. “No, Høyre and FrP are government partners,” he told Aftenposten. “The respect we have for each other means we can find solutions we can agree on. But we must not use so much time that the whole parliamentary period passes without finding a conclusion.”

“I envision that the probable starting point will be to create a white paper about the issue,” said Werp. “It is an important question of principle which needs the broadest possible political anchorage.”

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate