Royal Commission releases world’s largest study of jury behaviour

Royal Commission releases world’s largest study of jury behaviour

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will today launch the report of a major empirical study into how juries reason when deliberating on multiple counts of child sexual abuse.

Using mock juries and a trial involving charges of child sexual abuse in an institutional context, Jury Reasoning in Joint and Separate Trials of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: An Empirical Study investigates whether conducting joint trials and admitting tendency evidence infringe on a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

Chair of the Royal Commission, Justice Peter McClellan AM, said that child sexual abuse offences are generally committed in private, with no eyewitnesses, and in some cases there will be no medical or scientific evidence capable of confirming the abuse.

“Where the only evidence of the abuse is the complainant’s evidence, it can be difficult for the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the alleged offence occurred,” Justice McClellan said.

“There may be evidence that confirms some of the surrounding circumstances, or evidence of first complaint, but the jury is effectively considering the account of one person against the account of another.

“The assumptions underlying the common law and legislative rules governing the admissibility of tendency and coincidence evidence and the availability of joint trials have been largely untested. 

“The research that we are releasing today provides evidence about how people who are likely to comprise juries reason on these issues.

“The results are interesting. For some they will be counterintuitive and possibly surprising. They will undoubtedly assist all of us to reflect on whether the current rules are appropriate,” he said.

This is the largest study of jury behaviour in regards to child sexual abuse charges, and involves 90 mock jury deliberations with more than 1,000 people who were eligible to be jurors.

The research examined the results in a simulated joint trial of child sex offences involving multiple complainants versus separate trials involving single complainants.

The issues were investigated by presenting 10 different pre-recorded trials involving the same core evidence to the jurors, with the study focusing on the impact of evidence and the specific judicial directions on jury decision-making in joint versus separate trials.

The research revealed that juries did not engage in reasoning that was unfairly prejudicial to the defendant. They were not overwhelmed by the number of complainants or witnesses.

Juries are able to distinguish different charges against an accused and base their verdicts on the evidence relevant to each count.

This research will help to inform any law reform in relation to whether more joint trials should be available where there are multiple complainants against an individual accused.

Jury Reasoning in Joint and Separate Trials of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: An Empirical Study was conducted by authors:

Jane Goodman-Delahunty
Research Professor, School of Psychology and Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security, Charles Sturt University; and

Annie Cossins
Professor of Law & Criminology, Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales.

Read Jury Reasoning in Joint and Separate Trials of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: An Empirical Study

Read Justice McClellan's opening remarks from the launch of Jury Reasoning in Joint and Separate Trials of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: An Empirical Study.

The report was launched on 25 May 2016 in Sydney. The presentation, video and audio of the launch will be available shortly.