HISTORY OF JURY TRIALS IN INDIA

  • History of jury trials 

After the renaissance movement in Europe major philosophies originated, be it liberalism from the protestant movement, Marxism from the industrial revolution. One such system which spread from the west to the rest of the world is the jury system or the trial by jury. The very concept of jury trial reflects that the right to give justice rests upon the community. Originating from the Greek Heliaia court and the century assembly in ancient Rome, the jury trial emerged in its classic form in England in the 11th century, in the 17th-18th century, the British established their court orders in India, Burma, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc.

It was assumed that since the community is given the task of giving justice sometimes revoking it public order will not be maintained, people will understand the importance and the value of justice, to oppose absolute power held by legislators or an executive, jury system gave rise and more importance to individualism and the rights of the community to decide what is good and not good for the community it lives in, who it pardons from the offence even at the cost of the law being violated.

There is a dispute among historians with respect to the timeline of the origin of the jury in England, the origin of jury trials in England is associated by the legal historians with the beginning of travels of royal judges in various counties of the kingdom. There is a concept according to which the introduction of institutions of jury trial and magistrates in England has been the result of achieving one goal: protection of public order by the society itself in accordance with unwritten social norms of justice and judicial precedents. Many historians conclude about the undoubted Norman origin of the jury trial, brought to England at its very source and developed there, under the influence of local conditions, into a complete institute, long considered to be specifically English.

Jury trials in India 

India also has the same story which other colonies had, the East India Company Charter of 1661 envisaged jury trial for European colonists while the native residents of the Bengal Presidency were subject to summary jurisdiction at the hands of the Collector, or Zamindar an English officer empowered to impose sentences including flogging and execution. Universal jury trial first appeared in India in 1774 but Bengal already enjoyed very developed forms of Islamic and indigenous justice. Some attempt was therefore required to capitalize on the legitimacy of these procedures whilst responding to European demands for a jury trial. European judges, typically, had little understanding of local customs or languages and needed the authority of local religious leaders, particularly the Moslem Imams, to validate their judgments by Fatwa (legal non-binding opinion).

After the transfer of power from the East India Company to the crown, in 1861 the Legislative Council established a general system of jury trial in such districts throughout Bengal, Dacca, Poona, Patna, and then the whole of Assam, but exercisable only with the consent of the local government, which was to specify the classes of offences which would qualify, with later amendments jury trials were extended throughout India.

Abolition of jury trials in India 

In many states after the British had moved already too severely to limit or eliminate jury trials, the Bombay Sessions Court administered one of the few jurisdictions where juries were still employed in serious criminal cases. One of the cases which is also believed to be the reason for the abolition of jury trials in India was the famous K.M Nanavati V. state of Maharashtra. The summary of the case is a naval commander N. K. Nanavati shot and killed his wife’s lover Prem Ahuja. He then turned himself in to the local police and was put on trial for murder. After hearing the case, the jury there voted overwhelmingly, 8-1, to acquit Nanavati. The presiding judge declared the verdict ‘perverse’ and the case was sent up to the High Court where the verdict was overturned. The jury’s failure to convict Nanavati, it is often argued, led directly to the abolition of jury trials throughout the country. Now when someone is accused of murder, justice is the only tool that can heal the victim and their family and the society at large, justice must be fair for both the parties the jury must also look and understand as to why the accused had to take such steps to commit such a heinous act, on the other hand the jury must also ascertain that whether such acts were ‘extremely necessary’ or was there some other way to resolve the dispute. One can also say that the way the act was committed is not important but rather the circumstances behind it is what needs to be understood.

While we hope that the jury at its part will look at all these circumstances and then fairly reach a verdict which is the right thing to do. But unfortunately, our hopes were shattered in the Nanavati case which shook the very trust of society on the jury system. One important aspect is that the new tabloid journalism provided by Blitz, “deliberately iconoclastic and irreverent,” as one admirer of the paper put it, championed Nanavati’s cause and inflamed popular opinion in defense of this ‘honor killing.’ Thus, the case lay at the intersection of the rise of mass media and populist politics. Communal and class issues, it also has been pointed out, lay not far below the surface. Nanavati came from a respectable Parsi family as did Blitz’s founding editor, R. K. Karanjia. Nanavati’s victim, Prem Ahuja, on the other hand, was a Sindhi, an outsider and social climber, a wealthy and immoral philanderer, who was less than welcome in elite, cosmopolitan Bombay. The High Court judge, Shelat J. reviewed the entire evidence again and concluded that the accused was clearly guilty of the offence of murder. He also expressed his utter surprise and disdain at the verdict of the jury. According to him, the jury was perverse, unreasonable, and not in any way in line with the evidence or the facts of the case. The case was further taken to the Supreme Court, where it was held that the accused was liable for murder and the case did not fall under the category of grave and sudden provocation. Some other cases by the jury were also considered fallacious:

Another case of a jury trial is Abdul Rahim v. The King Emperor decided on February 26, 1946, by a Board that found out that the Jury which was trying the case had allowed and accepted inadmissible evidence. In addition, it was also found out that there had been serious instances of misdirection and non-direction of a jury, to proceed to consider the evidence, and maintain a conviction if the evidence is sufficient. The third case of Ramanugrah Singh v. The King Emperorxi which was decided on 18th June 1946 by Lords Thankerton, Porter, du Parcq, Sir Madhavan Nair, and Sir John Beaumont, further accentuated the discrepancies in Jury Trials. The aforementioned case dealt with three men who were shot out of which two were wounded and only one died. The Jury here declared that the accused that shot the men would be liable only for the injury of the two men who survived and not for the murder of the third man. The Judge presiding over this case disagreed with the decision of the Jury on the murder case and referred it to the High Court. The Judge stated that the verdict of the Jury was contradictory as according to him the verdict of culpable homicide not amounting to murder would be apt.

The Nanavati Case in 1959 caused many hues and cries in the country calling attention to a reform in the administration of criminal justice through jury trials as it was evidently a flawed system. The 14th Report given by the Law Commission also recommended for the jury system to be abolished and finally after 41 st law commission report of 1969 the age-old system of the jury was abolished.

Should the jury system be reinstated? 

One must ask themselves can a jury be fair when it has already a pre-conception about a person or an event. , can a jury be fair to an individual who is already believed to be guilty? Should there be criteria while selecting the jury for example for a black person accused must there be a black jury to give a fair judgment?.

Today the jury trials in the United Kingdom have reduced up to 1% of the total criminal trials and the reason for it is that the principles that it was founded upon are not completely followed. It is when the accused pleads not guilty the jury is summoned to try the case. The criminal trial with the jury takes place only at the crown court. England, from where jury trials emerged, has most of its criminal cases tried without a jury these days. Summary cases are not tried by the Jury.

These days most of the cases were tried summarily by the Magistrates and the accused could ask for a Trial by Jury only in cases of extremely grave offences. Looking at jury trials one should equate it with the ordinary court, but one should look it as “convincing a group of people in any possible manner so as to make them forget or ignore the evidence on record and reach an unfair verdict”. Even if we think in favor of the jury system then we will be ignoring a very important point which is the pre-judgment of the people who constitute the jury. It is impossible to say that a jury will not be biased if it has a preconceived notion about an individual. Even if we assume that juries are not biased and this can be ensured by adopting the system that is adopted in the United States of America where there is a long selection of jury by both the parties to remove the partial jurors and only keep the neutral jurors, again it is very important to look at it from the realist point of view rather than being ideal, this selection process is used by lawyers for their own benefit they try to maximize the support from the jury, therefore, they don’t eliminate biased jurors but rather those jurors who they feel will not support their cause, because at the end of the day lawyers are not in the business of justice but are in the business of law. 

An example to support my argument is the case of O.J Simpson case where one can see how Simpson’s lawyers very smartly only kept black jurors (as Mr. Simpson was a black gentleman) so as to support their cause and to get a majority in their favor. Today in the United States trials by jury are declining due to the time and cost they involve. To conclude it is impossible that not only in India but anywhere around the globe even in nations that gave birth to the system of a jury, that a jury will not be biased and even if it is not biased by a test of elimination we saw how advocates use such test to their advantage. To conclude this research with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi on jury trials:

“I am unconvinced of the advantages of jury trials over those by judges. I have known jury’s finding prisoners guilty in the face of no evidence and even judges summing up to the contrary. We must not slavishly copy all that is English. In matters where absolute impartiality, calmness and ability to sift evidence and understand human nature are required, we may not replace trained judges by untrained men brought together by chance. What we must aim at is an incorruptible impartial and able judiciary right from the bottom.”

Aishwarya Says:

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