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New laws to simplify jury directions

The Victorian Coalition Government is bringing legislation into Parliament today to shorten and simplify jury directions in criminal trials.

Attorney-General Robert Clark said the legislation will implement reforms arising from a 2009 report by the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) on jury directions, which found that jury directions in Victoria have become complex, voluminous and uncertain.

“Complex jury directions lead to unnecessary appeals and retrials that are a significant cause of delay in the court system, as well as unnecessary trauma and stress for victims, witnesses and others,” Mr Clark said.

“That’s why we committed prior to the election to act on the VLRC’s recommendations and other jury direction reforms, and why I am pleased to bring this legislation to the Parliament.”

The Bill makes reforms in six main areas:
– guiding principles for judges on how jury directions are expected to operate;
– new processes for identifying the directions a trial judge must give a jury in the circumstances of the case, including requiring the prosecution and defence to give their views in advance;
– making it clear that judges should give a targeted and succinct summing up of the evidence rather than a detailed recounting of the evidence or of the prosecution or defence addresses to the jury;
– simplifying the way judges explain to juries what they need to decide in reaching their verdict, including through integrated directions that include the law within factual questions the jury should consider;
– allowing judges to answer questions about the meaning of “proof beyond reasonable doubt”; and
– clarifying and simplifying what judges should tell jurors about the evidence of conduct of the accused subsequent to the alleged offence.

The Bill has been developed in consultation with a specialist Jury Directions Advisory Group that included high-level representatives from the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court, County Court, the Victorian Bar, the Office of Public Prosecutions, the Judicial College of Victoria, Victoria Legal Aid and academics specialising in jury research.

“These reforms are being undertaken in close collaboration with the courts and other agencies, so that the changes made by the Bill are changes that will make a real and practical difference in reducing delays and unjustified appeals,” Mr Clark said.

A second stage of jury directions reforms is planned for introduction next year, based on work led by Justice Weinberg of the Court of Appeal in the Simplification of Jury Directions Project, together with other work being undertaken by the Jury Directions Advisory Group.