TOWN EDITION. [ lssued at 4.30 p.m. ] The Ashburton Guardian. Magna Est Veritas, Et Prevalebit. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 1881. Proposed Abolition of Trial by Jury.
A trial for murder lately heard at Rockhampton, in Queensland, has served as a text for some of the legal profession, and a few press writers who servilely follow their lead, to urge again the desirableness of abolishing trial by jury. The facts of the case were very startling. A nurse girl, named Alice Wormald, who was in charge of three young children, took them out for a walk, and when they were some littte distance from home dropped the youngest child, whether accidentally or purposely does not clearly appear, into a water-hole. In order to conceal her negligence or guilt, she proceeded to dispose of the two other children in the same way, lest they should be able to fell what she had done. One of them was deliberately murdered by drowning, but the other contrived to escape, and was the principal witness on the trial. The girl, after her arrest, confessed her guilt, and completely confirmed the story of the surviving child. In the face of these obvious facts, the jury gave a verdict of “ Not Guilty,” and when it was naturally suggested to them by the presiding judge that they probably considered the prisoner to be laboring under temporary insanity, replied in the negative. The strange verdict was recorded, and Alice Wormald has been set at large, free at a future time to commit similarly guiltless murder, perhaps with similar impunity. ‘ Of course the old cry has been raised by the lawyers, that this is the result of trial by jury, and that it is far better in criminal cases to leave the matter in the hands of an able and upright judge. These gentlemen forget, however, that all law and its administration rest, not on principles of immutable right, but on the wisest adaptation that can be devised of certain means to certain ends. The only question is not what method is perfect, but which works best in the largest number of cases. Now, if any impartial person listens to the evidence and decisions in a large number of criminal trials, he will almost certainly arrive at the conclusion that in nineteen cases out of twenty the jury gave in a just and wise verdict. Substantial justice in fact is arrived at in so large a tnajority of cases, that until some obviously better method than that of trial by jury is suggested, it would to the last degree foolish to abolish it. The practice also of all the most free nations in the world is so much in favor of this method, and the practice of all the most despotic so much the reverse, that we should not do well to take a leap in the dark, except for some very strong reason. , And if| it be true, and it certainly is, that juries are sometimes in the wrong, are judgep infallible?,. We have every
day proofs that they are not, and at every holding of a Circuit Court the clearest demonstration that they blunder quite as often as the jurymen. Which, we should like to know, are most in accordance with the eternal principles of justice—the decisions of our jurymen as to the fact of a prisoner being guilty or otherwise, or the sentences awarded by the judges for various offences deemed to have been committed ? It is well known that different judges are entirely at variance with one another as to the comparative enormity of various offences, and consequently as to the penalty to be awarded for a breach of the law. One judge perhaps, who at some time of his life has been a squatter, will be very severe on every culprit found guilty of horse, sheep, or cattle stealing ; a second will deal heavily with assault and injury to the body ; a third, in his natural disgust at cases of indecent assault, will incline towards the heaviest punishment the law allows for that class of offenders. So that while one judge may sentence a criminal to three months’ imprisonment for an offence, another may extend the sentence to three years for precisely the same crime. It must always be borne in mind also that where a decision rests with one man, even if he be the wisest and most upright judge, a sudden bodily ailment may cloud the most brilliant intellect. Such a disturbing cause is to the last degree unlikely to affect twelve men at the same time.
The fact is that, while vastly more conversant than laymen as to what is the law as it stands, lawyers are vastly more apt to lose sight of what the law was intended for —namely, the administration of justice. On one occasion, when the ablest District Court Judge in Victoria had decided on a case before him, the counsel of the person against whom the decision was given, started up and said, “ But, pardon me, your Honor, there is no justice in that to my client.” “Justice ! Justice! Mr So and So,” said his Honor, “This is not a Court of Justice ; it is a Law Court. We haven’t the article you speak of in stock.” And so it is. Our Law Courts are by no meatis always Courts of Justice. As a general rule, the legal profession wants them to be the former; as a general rule, also, the public wants them to be the latter.