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Lawyers Debate On Use of Assessor System In Court

The debate on whether Fiji should do away with assessors in our courtrooms seems to have private practitioners on one end and the Director of Public Prosecutions on the other.
09 Dec 2017 12:33
Lawyers Debate On Use of Assessor System In Court
Director of Public Prosecutions Christopher Pryde

The debate on whether Fiji should do away with assessors in our courtrooms seems to have private practitioners on one end and the Director of Public Prosecutions on the other.

Speaking for the notion of abolishing it altogether, Suva lawyer Devanesh Sharma said keeping assessors was time consuming among other things even though the use of assessors ensured community involvement in trials.

“In my opinion there are compelling reasons why the practice of having assessors assist a Judge in trials, should be abolished.” Mr Sharma said.

“Now the assessor system is justified on the basis that it allows community involvement in the criminal justice system. However, the reason why the assessor system was first introduced to Fiji was based on the assumption that a jury of Europeans could not be relied upon to determine any case involving a native; Chinese; Indian or Polynesian immigrant in a fair and impartial manner is no longer valid.”

Mr Sharma questioned the use of assessors today saying that the final decision rested with the Judge.

“Secondly, where a Judge does not accept the assessors’ opinions, the question arises whether the assessors are competent to sit as judges of facts? Thirdly, why do Judges need assistance from assessors when ultimately the decision to convict or acquit an accused person lies with the Judge?,” Mr Sharma said.

In defence of keeping assessors in High Court trials, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Christopher Pryde, said Fiji was not ready to do away with them.

“In my view, the assessor system manages to capture the best features of a jury system whilst avoiding many of the disadvantages of the jury system. Instead of abolishing the assessor system we should be strengthening it and providing more opportunities for cases to be heard before assessors, including in the Magistrates’ Court,” he said.

“Fiji’s assessor system has operated well for 125 years and should continue to do so. It is cost effective, it guards against elitism, it keeps the community engaged, and it promotes democracy.

“In circumstances where indictable matters need to be referred down to the Magistrates’ Court, it should be on the condition that the magistrate will sit with assessors.”

Mr Pryde said while he was in favour of retaining the system with assessors, improvements could be made.

“It has been 25 years since Fiji last formally examined the assessor system. Whilst I remain in favour of retaining the current system, it may be time to look more closely at some further improvements.” Edited by Percy Kean

Feedback: jyotip@fijisun.com.fj



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