Trial by jury has been through all stages of New Zealand's history the most favoured procedure for ascertaining guilt consistent with protecting the innocent. It is and is likely to remain automatic for the most serious crimes. In other cases the accused may claim jury trial wherever the maximum imprisonment for the offence exceeds three months. Although this right is often not exercised, it is highly valued and regarded generally as a fundamental safeguard. The jury in civil cases in the Supreme Court is not of fundamental importance, but is also favoured and commonly used.
The first provision for common juries was made in 1841, the qualification for service being, as in England, property ownership. Lack of adequate records of title made a property qualification impracticable, however, and in 1844 every male British subject (other than a Maori) of good fame and character between the ages of 21 and 60, with certain exceptions, mostly occupational, was declared qualified to serve on a jury. Intended as a makeshift, this has remained the test to the present day. The upper age limit was raised to 65 in 1945.
In 1942 women were enabled to volunteer for jury service, the age limits since 1961 being the same as for men. Few women have volunteered and only a handful have served on a jury. The Juries Amendment Act of 1963 makes them liable to be included in the roll in the same way as men, but gives a woman an absolute right to have her name withdrawn on request. Compulsory jury service for women has been urged for many years by a number of women's organisations, but has been rejected on the ground of difficulty in providing for the exemption of women with young children. A petition to Parliament in 1963 resulted in the present compromise.
Maoris have hitherto not been eligible to serve on ordinary juries. An ordinance in 1844 declared that any Maori whose capability was certified qualified and was liable to serve on a mixed jury for the trial of any case in which the property or person of a Maori might be affected. This introduced, in theory at least, a measure of racial equality, which says much for its sponsors. There was a retreat in 1868. A Maori accused of a crime against another Maori could claim trial before an all-Maori jury, but no Maori could serve on a jury if either accused or victim was a non-Maori. In civil cases a Maori jury could be claimed if both parties were Maoris; a mixed jury if one party was a Maori. The law remained in this form for nearly a century. In 1962, legislation, which will come fully into force in 1965, abolished separate Maori juries and placed Maoris and others on an equal footing as far as jury service was concerned.