Civil jury trials in the High Court
11.1Section 19A of the Judicature Act 1908 provides the right for a party to civil proceedings to have the case heard by a judge and jury in the High Court where the relief claimed is payment of a debt, pecuniary damages, or recovery of chattels exceeding $3,000 in value. This right is subject to the judge’s overriding discretion to order that a trial will be by judge alone in particular circumstances.
11.2In the Law Commission’s 1989 Report on the structure of the courts, the Commission observed that in the civil jurisdiction jury trials had almost disappeared. Whereas in the 1960s about one third of all civil trials in the Supreme Court (as it then was) had juries, by 1986 the figure was less than one per cent of civil cases proceeding to judgment.
11.3More recently, in Issues Paper 29 the Commission noted that in the preceding eight years only three civil jury trials actually took place in New Zealand. The latest figures show that over the last five financial years, two civil jury trials were scheduled to take place in New Zealand, but only one actually proceeded to trial. Both were defamation cases.
11.4The Commission highlighted concerns regarding the relative inefficiency and costliness of jury trials in civil proceedings, the lack of experience in dealing with them by some judges and counsel, and stated that the rare use of the right to civil juries suggests they are no longer valued by our society as they once may have been. The Commission noted, however, there may be a stronger case for the use of a civil jury in defamation cases than in other civil cases, because defamation involves injury to the esteem in which the plaintiff is held by his or her fellow citizens.
11.5Issues Paper 29 also discussed the approach to civil jury trials in other jurisdictions, and options for reform in New Zealand. The Commission sought views on whether new courts legislation should still make provision for civil jury trials, and, if so, in what circumstances.