Jury trials, transparency crucial for building trust in courts
When asked whether public participation, such as having jury trials, is fundamental to public trust in the judicial system, David Vaughn, head of the U.s.-funded Fair Justice Project, replied with one word: “exactly.”
Yet juries are hardly used in criminal trials to weigh the facts and issue verdicts. Public trust in the judiciary, in turn, is low. In December, a joint survey by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Razumkov Center found that only 9.4 percent of 2,008 respondents generally trust Ukrainian judges.
The nation now has the chance to change public attitudes thanks to a fair trial law that came into force on March 28. The measure opened courtrooms to the public. Taking pictures or making video and audio recordings is allowed.
One lawyer, Stanislav Batryn, head of the Lions Litigate law firm, has since April started filming and uploading numerous trials on Youtube and a website that is part of his Open Court civic initiative.
He said publicity is the greatest tool to fight corruption in courts.
“A small camera lets the judge know that they are watched by millions of people,” he said. “You won’t believe how this person is changing right in front of your eyes, how they start to think whether to take the unlawful decision or act according to the law.”
In the early 1990s, recordings of court proceedings were not allowed. Later, audio recordings became possible. Still, judges would act rudely and with disrespect towards those in the courtroom. They would intimidate defendants or witnesses, and disregard evidence. They could make a witness stop talking by sight or movement that an audio recorder wouldn’t catch, Batryn said.
He said his tactics are more efficient than lodging official complaints.
“We have never had such an instrument of civil influence as we have now,” Batryn said. “If the judge is misbehaving, we want the entire country to see such ‘heroes’ and then put that to the presidential level.”
Old habits still persist. On June 9, Kyiv Desnyansky District Court Judge Iryna Dikhtiar forbade a Kyiv Post photographer to take pictures at a criminal hearing of American citizen Robert T. Fletcher.
Jury trials were introduced in Ukraine in 2012 but have been rarely used. Only 16 cases had juries in the first half
of 2014 out of 459,700, Kateryna Gupalo of Arzinger law firm said.
In Ukraine, they are only used in criminal procedures that may carry a life imprisonment sentence and only if the accused requests a jury. Moreover, three jury members reach a verdict together with two judges, not independently, Mykhail Kundenko of Syutkin and Partners said.
Moreover, the public still isn’t familiar with jury procedures and lacks a fundamental understanding of its role in ensuring a fair judicial process.
Countries with established rule of law use juries to take the decision of guilt or innocence out of the hands of legal professionals and put it in the hands of the peers of the accused. The belief is that citizen juries help ensure that the innocent don’t get convicted but the guilty do.
Batryn said that jury trials work well in countries where judicial institutions are strong, transparent and trusted. But in Ukraine, Batryn said, jury trials may simply open up more avenues for “intimidation and bribes.”
A case in point is the trial of two former Berkut riot police officers who are accused of killing 39 activists during the Euromaidan Revolution. The jury selection process has been postponed twice because the Kyiv City Council didn’t provide a jury list. Two jury members that were chosen both had worked for the police, making their impartiality doubtful.
Lawyer Bate C. Toms, chairman of the British Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce, suggests an additional measure.
Since people have no effective redress of the unjust court decisions having a legal ombudsman funded by the international community would “very quickly change the legal system in Ukraine and dramatically reduce corruption,” he said.
Having the ability to complain to an ombudsman chosen by business associations, and have them publish legal opinions, might be enough to make judges revise some unwise decisions. Parliament, according to Toms, could also act on the ombudsman’s opinion to initiate impeachment proceedings of judges. “After one or two impeachments, the system in Ukraine will be changed forever. This is the magic bullet that can dramatically rectify Ukraine’s legal system,” Toms said.
Making court a public service “One of the key functions of the judiciary is to ensure it properly engages the communities that it serves,” Vaughn said. Thus, they should make courts open public service institutions.
The first ever jury trial in independent Ukraine took place in Lviv on June 30, 2013. Morocco citizen Shakib Otman was accused of beating a prominent Lviv doctor to death and was acquitted by the jury. (UNIAN)
Jury trials exist in theory but not practice in Ukraine. Procedures are vague and many people are not interested in getting chosen, so jurors -- on the rare occasion of a jury trial -- are often drawn from retirees or public servants.
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