A 1969 law that abolished trial by jury in South Africa could have a big impact on the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic star who’s accused of killing his girlfriend.
The fate of Pistorius is in the hands of a judge and two officials called assessors, who might be less likely to be influenced by emotion than jurors, The New York Times pointed out in a recent story.
While trial by jury is a commonly used right in the United States, the practice in South Africa declined long before it was officially banned in 1969.
The South African Law Commission has given a number of reasons for the gradual decline of juries, including:
- expansive powers of the Minister of Justice to order trials without a jury;
- reluctance of the public to serve on juries;
- widespread exemptions leaving few competent jury candidates;
- and fears of racial prejudice among jury members, given South Africa’s complex race relations.
According to a report by the South African Law Commission in the 1990s, the practice of trial by jury in South African courts gradually decreased throughout much of the early 20th century. The nation’s 1917 Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act 31 allowed anyone on trial in the local or provincial division of the Supreme Court to choose to be tried without a jury.
A 1935 amendment to that law authorised the Minister of Justice to order a trial be held without a jury for certain cases. The minister’s power in that regard increased in the mid-20th century, leading to a growing number of trials without jury.
A 1954 amendment to the nation’s criminal code established that all trials would take place without a jury, unless an accused person requested a jury and the Minister of Justice didn’t order otherwise.
By the time the Abolition of Juries Act 34 abolished the jury system completely in 1969, trials by jury had largely fallen out of use.
Although the trial of South Africa’s star runner Pistorius for the alleged murder of his girlfriend won’t be decided by a jury of his peers, that doesn’t mean his fate will be determined entirely by a sole judge. Trials by jury in South Africa were replaced with the use of assessors, law experts who assist the judge hearing the case.
In the case of Pistorius, Judge Thokozile Masipa has appointed two assessors to assist her.
University of Pretoria professor and criminal procedure law expert Annette van der Merwe explained the assessors’ roles, reported by South Africa’s Independent Online news website. According to Van der Merwe, the two assessors could potentially overrule the judge when it comes to a verdict based on the facts of the case. For example, if both assessors rule in favour of murder, that will be the accepted verdict regardless of the judge’s ruling. But when it comes to sentencing, the judge has the final say over the assessors.
The Pistorius trial was recently adjourned until April 7 due to an illness afflicting one of the assessors.