Lay people in the legal system – jury – jury room

Jury foreman’s revelations in the case of a childminder who was accused of manslaughter.

Students may find themselves discussing the value of the contribution made by lay people in our legal system.  The jury’s role in criminal cases is limited to trials at the Crown Court where the defendant has pleaded not guilty.  In practice this may amount to about 20,000 cases each year.

In such discussions it is inevitable that we may also find ourselves discussing the issue of secrecy.  On the one hand the jury discussion and deliberation takes place in secret and the law (in the form of Section 8 of the Contempt of Court act 1981) prohibits any enquiry as to how the jury reached its decision.  This has certain consequences when it comes to considering whether juries can understand and follow the evidence. If juries are not required to give any reasons for their verdicts how can this aspect be properly researched?

On the other hand the fact that the work of the jury is secret may be a good thing because it can be argued that it frees the jury from pressure and protects the jury from outside influences.

The law

We may well have understood the secrecy of the work of the jury from films and dramatisations as well as from legal studies and we have probably heard of the term contempt of court.  It is contempt ‘to obtain, disclose or solicit any particulars of statements made, opinions expressed, an argument advanced or votes cast by members of a jury in the course of their deliberations in any legal proceedings.’  The prohibition was introduced because newspapers were tempting jurors with payments if they would sell their story.

The case of Keran Henderson

Keran Henderson, a child minder, was convicted in 2007 of the manslaughter of 11 month old Maeve Sheppard by a majority verdict of 10-2 and was sentenced to three years. Henderson is to appeal against her conviction.  The contempt arose out of making public the concerns of two of the jurors about the complexity of expert medical witnesses.  This amounted to a disclosure.

The effects of secrecy

As already mentioned the fact that deliberations are held in private can be said to protect the jurors from pressure.  The difficulty is that there is no way of knowing whether the jury did understand the case and that the verdict was given for the right reasons.

We are helped by some examples and the case of R v Mirza (2004) is of some importance.  The case came before the House of Lords- our most senior Court.  In that case the defendant was a Pakistani who had settled in the UK in 1988.  The defendant had an interpreter during the trial but this did not go unnoticed by the jury and it seems as though the jury doubted the need for this because they sent notes to the trial judge asking why Mirza needed an interpreter.  He was convicted by a majority of 10-2.  

Some six days later one jury member wrote to the defendant’s counsel suggesting that the use of an interpreter had been a ruse possibly to obtain the sympathy of the court in some way.

The juror also made it known that she had been shouted down when she had objected.  The revelations show possible bias or prejudice but the House of Lords were clear in their opinion that Section 8 had been infringed and that it was a contempt to disclose or obtain or solicit information about what had happened in the jury room.   It made no difference that such information was to be used for the purposes of an appeal.

In R v Connor and Rollock a juror wrote to the Crown Court indicating that while several of the jurors thought that it was one or other of the defendants that were responsible for the stabbing, they should convict them both to teach them a lesson.  This was after the verdict but before sentencing.  The jury had returned a 10-2 majority decision.  The individual juror had also included the statement that she had tried to persuade the rest of the jury to consider which defendant was responsible but that her fellow jurors had complained that they would be there a week if that were the case.

Students may remember the colourful case of R v Young (Stephen) (1995).  The case concerned a charge of murder of two people.  At the end of the trial the jury were sent out to deliberate but on failing to reach a verdict at the end of the first day the jury stayed overnight at a hotel.   

It came to light that some of the jury held a séance using a ouija board to try and contact the dead victims to ask them who had killed them!  As it happened a guilty verdict was returned the next day.  The defendant appealed to the Court of Appeal and they quashed the verdict and ordered a re-trial.  The Court of Appeal felt able to distinguish the hotel room from the jury room and were able to enquire into the events at the hotel as they were not part of the discussions in the jury room.

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