Officials have opened new deliberations on the future of a bill that would update the rules for the territory’s jury system. (Photo: GIS)

Officials from the Deputy Governor’s Office and the High Court began discussions last month about how to best “return” the Jury Bill to the House of Assembly in order to update the 1914 law that currently regulates the jury system, the Deputy Governor’s Office announced last Thursday.

During the talks, Deputy Governor David Archer Jr. and High Court Registrar Erica-Smith Penn agreed on the need to establish a stakeholder group that will be tasked with providing comments on various topics: areas members wish to see captured in the bill that are not included in the existing 1914 Jury Act; the composition of the jury list; provisions for jury service; the maximum age of jurors; and the electronic processing of the jury list, among others, according to a press release from the DGO.

“Jury reform is an important exercise that must be undertaken in the territory. The Jury Act is an important piece of legislation that governs the judicial process, and we must ensure that it is relevant, modern and reflective of the Virgin Islands that we envision,” Mr. Archer said.

Other stakeholders in the jury reform effort include the chief justice, attorney general, acting director of public prosecutions, police commissioner, senior magistrate, Supreme Court registrar, chief immigration officer, all judges from the general bench and bar, and the BVI Bar Association’s legal practitioners, according to the DGO press release.

The statement, however, did not mention legislators in the HOA, who ultimately hold the power to pass the law.

Trials halted

In 2009, after recommendations from the Law Reform Commission two years earlier, legislators introduced a new Jury Act. But the law was never passed.

In multiple speeches from the Throne in subsequent years, the government pledged to amend or replace the 1914 legislation, but those promises never came to fruition.

This latest iteration of the bill was mentioned during an HOA meeting in December, when opposition member Julian Fraser said he had been told by the High Court registrar that a Cabinet paper titled “Jury Bill 2019” was drafted and sent forward on July 5, but he was unable to find out the status or content of the bill.

During the same HOA meeting, Mr. Fraser complained that jury trials had been halted since July, after then-Director of Public Prosecutions Kim Hollis successfully challenged the legality of the manner by which jurors were chosen.

Current system

Under the Jury Act 1914, the High Court Registry is to select eligible jurors from a list that includes non-belonger residents who have lived in the VI for longer than ten years.  Instead, jurors had long been selected from the list of eligible voters, which excludes long-term non-belongers.

Jury trials resumed on Jan. 29 after a new list of jurors had been created, said DGO Communications Officer Temulji Hughes, but he added that the list cannot be made public