The Virgin Islands Jury Act 2022, which was passed Tuesday in the House of Assembly, would replace a 1914 law that legislators have described as outdated in several areas. (File photo: DANA KAMPA)

The House of Assembly passed the Virgin Islands Jury Act, 2022 with amendments after coming out of committee on Oct. 25, according to HOA Public Relations Officer Linton Leonard.

However, the video of the vote — which normally would have been broadcast on YouTube — was unavailable as of Beacon press time on Oct. 27.

The Virgin Islands Jury Act, 2022 — which Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley introduced in the House of Assembly on Aug. 9 — would replace a 1914 law that leaders have described as outdated in many respects.

During an HOA debate following the bill’s second reading on Oct. 18, legislators expressed support for many of its measures, but they argued over provisions designed to facilitate the addition of some non-belongers to the juror list.

The bill was amended during the closed-door committee stage, Mr. Leonard said, but because it still awaits the governor’s assent the final version passed by the HOA has not yet been made public.

Existing system

Under the Jury Act 1914, the High Court Registry is required to select eligible jurors from a list that includes non-belongers who have lived in the VI for at least ten years. In practice, though, jurors historically have been selected from the list of eligible voters, which excludes long-term non-belongers.

Partly because of this issue, jury trials were temporarily halted in July 2019 after then-Director of Public Prosecutions Kim Hollis successfully challenged the jury list in High Court. In her challenge, she took issue with the use of the voter registry to select jurors.

A judge ruled in her favour, finding that the list formerly used for jury selection was unconstitutional. A new list of jurors was subsequently created, the Deputy Governor’s Office said in early 2020. But the office declined to make the list public or say whether it includes non-belongers.

Last year, the Commission of Inquiry reviewed the issue, and Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom ultimately recommended considering a revised Jury Act. In support of that recommendation, Sir Gary cited input from Director of Public Prosecutions Tiffany Scatliffe-Esprit.

“The jurisdiction of the BVI is small, and finding jurors who do not know and are unrelated to witnesses and the accused is challenging,” the COI report states. “These eligibility requirements have the effect of significantly restricting the size of the jury pool. The DPP considers that the eligibility criteria should be revised, e.g. to allow those aged 18 and above and those who have been resident for five years (as opposed to 10 years) to be jurors.”

In keeping with Sir Gary’s recommendations, the COI implementation framework agreed by the United Kingdom and VI governments gave the HOA a July 31 deadline to consider “revisions to the Jury Act, in consultation with the governor, to increase the size of the jury pool of jurors to ensure the jury system is effective.”

Proposed law

The initially Gazetted version of the new Jury Act, like the existing law, would allow non-belongers who have lived in the territory for at least 10 years to serve on juries. But it also includes new provisions designed to facilitate this rule in practice, court officials explained during public meetings on the bill earlier this month.

The proposed law, for instance, would allow the jury selection panel to use additional methods to obtain information about potential jurors, including seeking input from the chief immigration officer, the registrar general, and the director of Social Security Board, officials said.

The bill would also create a “Jury Management Database” that would be published annually.

Limited list

During the Oct. 18 debate on the bill, Dr. Wheatley said he understands the need to address judicial officials’ complaints about the limited list of jurors and the challenge of finding candidates who don’t have connections to any of the interested parties in court cases.

“Of course, persons raised concerns about the bill, and these are issues that we’ll have to deal with in debate and in the committee stage,” he said at the time. “It is important to know that the current act is very old and in need of modernisation.”

Governor John Rankin said in a press conference on Oct. 19 that he agreed it would be a smart move to expand the jury pool based on the recommendation of the COI.

“I think it’d be a good move for two reasons: One is, at the moment, the number of people on the jury list is a limited number, and there can be challenges in compiling a jury which might not know the persons involved or know details of the facts involved. … So having a wider juror list helps ensure you have a jury which will be objective.

“The second point I would make is that as matter of fundamental justice, people have a right to be tried by their peers, and if you restrict the jury to only one set of persons living here in the BVI, then you reduce your opportunity to have a jury of peers. I believe it would be a positive move.”

However, during the Oct. 18 debate some legislators shared concerns about expanding the pool in this way, instead calling for a more exhaustive approach to seeking belongers who are already eligible to serve but don’t get called.