Inclusive juries: justice for all

Providing Auslan sign language interpreters and providing other reasonable supports are part of a blueprint to improve jury representation for people who are deaf, blind or hard of hearing.

Research from Australian Catholic University’s David Spencer provided empirical research data for a Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) report into inclusive juries that has been delivered to the state government. The report should be published when it is tabled in the parliament.

The report could be the catalyst for Victoria, and other Australian states and territories, to follow the example set by the ACT who, in 2018, changed its laws to allow reasonable supports to be provided that would clear the way for juries to be more inclusive.

In a report aired on ABC news and available on the ABC website, Mr Spencer stated, “There is this myth that deaf people can't comprehend complex legal issues, and factual issues, as well as a hearing person. Our research blew that myth out of the water”. 

Mr Spencer, Senior Lecturer-in-Law at ACU’s Thomas More Law School is the former Deputy Provost of ACU and foundation acting Executive Dean of the Faculty of Law and Management.

In 2014 he was among a research team, funded by the ARC, who staged a mock trial to explore the capabilities of deaf jurors and the impact of having an Auslan interpreter in court and the jury deliberation room. It was conducted in the New South Wales District Court, presided over by a recently retired judge and featured practising prosecutors and lawyers.

Alex Jones, a deaf man who served on the jury, said the mock trial was an instructive exercise.

“I felt empowered as a deaf person, and it just shows that it is possible,” he told the ABC.

The VLRC report noted that the Juries Act 2000 (Vic) does not specifically exclude people who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or who have low vision from serving as jurors in Victoria.

However, willing jurors are often excluded from jury service due to a lack of available supports that enable them to understand visual or audio evidence.

An additional legal barrier is the old common law rule that there must not be more than 12 jurors present in jury deliberations. This is known as the ‘13th person rule’ and it means that a juror cannot be assisted by a non-juror in jury deliberations.

After receiving complaints from three deaf Australian citizens, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has called on Australia to change its jury laws.

In its report, the VLRC listed an inventory of supports to promote inclusive juries. It included certified Auslan interpreters, hearing loops, Communication Access Real Time translation (CART), assistance animals, speech recognition software, Braille material and changed fonts.

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