Discuss the arguments against keeping the jury system.

Juries are independent of the court system and cannot be forced to find anyone guilty or not guilty, but are jurors qualified enough and does it matter?

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Discuss the arguments against keeping the jury system.

 

Questions to the trial judge are not new and are commonly encountered as part of a criminal trial. However the nature of some high profile questions put to the judge recently by a jury have perhaps caused us to stop and think about the whole business of whether juries play a worthwhile part in our criminal justice system after all. The trial of Vicky Pryce and that question which in effect doubted the very point of a criminal trial, namely whether the jury can return a verdict which is not based on the evidence put before the jury, triggered enormous interest. That question and some of the others raised, opened up the long debated question of whether jurors properly understand their role.

 

The system is based upon the random selection of members of the public aged between 18 and 70 and registered on the electoral roll and resident in the UK. The Ministry of Justice recently announced plans to raise the upper age limit of jurors in England and Wales from 70 to 75 years.  BBC News - Jury age limit to be raised to 75 in England and Wales. There are no minimum educational standards to be met and this in itself raises issues of whether problems with reading presents difficulties in itself. There is also the complexity of some trials where endless documents lie at the heart of the case. Those that support jury trials respond by asking who needs qualifications when it comes to matters of fact and common sense.

 

Unless an individual is disqualified or excused they must sit as a juror and this now includes those that are connected with the administration of justice such as police officers and legal professionals. There is an argument that when one of the jurors has a legal background there is a danger that the remainder of the jury relies too heavily upon that person and do not scrutinise the evidence sufficiently. There have been instances when a member of the jury has picked up something from CCTV surveillance that had been missed by everyone else.

 

One problem is that under the laws of contempt members of the jury are precluded from discussing the case except in the jury room and this applies both during and after the proceedings. So how can we tell one way or the other if a juror with a legal background has influenced the rest of the jury? The answer is that we can not be certain but we have 12 jurors deliberately to balance out any bias or prejudice. If it is the case that individuals connected with the administration of justice do exercise too much authority it would defeat the object of having a number of jurors sitting as a panel.

 

As regards the matter of bias, the case of R v Mirza (2004) is of some importance. The defendant had used an interpreter during his trial this did not go unnoticed by the jury and it seems as though the jury doubted the need for the interpreter thinking it a ploy. On appeal the case came before the then House of Lords. The appeal raised the question of impartiality on the part of the jury.  Counsel for the appellant stated 'In my view there are substantial grounds for concluding that the jury reached their verdict on perverse grounds which included a pronounced racial element.' The appeals were dismissed and their Lordships affirmed the principle that 'the court will not inquire into what happens in the jury room.'

 

The trend seems to be for trials to become more comprehensive and complex as a result of advances in forensic work including DNA evidence which is largely statistical in nature. At times this can lead to a need for careful handling by legal professionals if the evidence is to be properly understood. In addition some long fraud trials are thought to bring their own problems for juries. It is difficult to find conclusive studies in this area because of the rules regarding disclosure by jurors, such studies that have been carried out are usually based around shadow juries. These studies seem to suggest that jurors do try and base their deliberations on the evidence before them. Whether deliberations in the jury room are conducted involving all 12 members of the jury is not known but there are those that argue that it would be too difficult for considered discussions with all 12 members and perhaps we are influenced by what we may like to think happens.

 

In a great many trials a unanimous verdict may not be too difficult a task for the jury. In other cases this may be problematic and after time has been allowed by the trial judge, the jury may be directed that a majority verdict is acceptable. Either way a jury is required for the whole trial and this is both time consuming and costly. Despite this cost, for some a trial is the only way of testing their case if they believe they have a defence which has merit and a reasonable chance of success. A trial with only a judge and no jury (Diplock trials) are regarded with suspicion and trial by ones peers has a huge historical significance in our criminal justice system.

 

The prospect of jury service is not always popular and there have been concerns that not sufficient sections of society participate in the jury process. Recent figures published by the Ministry of Justice indicate that the experience is considered to be worthwhile by members of the public that are selected. Jurors are expected to carry out this civic duty voluntarily and this is not always welcomed although they do receive expenses but some do dispute the amount they are allowed to claim.

 

There are issues concerning the make-up of the jury in terms not only of gender but ethnic background bearing in mind we now live in what many say is a multi-cultural society. There is no legal requirement for a 'balanced' jury as such and it is hoped that the random selection process cancels out many concerns. It is possible to challenge the way the jury is selected 'challenge to the array' but this is limited. Any attempt to introduce legal requirements as to balance is bound to be fraught with difficulties and likely to add to the time taken to select a panel of jurors and there is also the issue of cost.

 

Is it possible for some notorious individuals to receive a fair trial given any reported information about the case? Unfortunately there can be concerns and such cases as Fred West and Ian Huntley come to mind. The argument is that widespread publicity about an offence must surely make it difficult for any person subsequently charged to have a fair trial. The cases referred to show us that the judiciary are slow to waive any prosecution in such circumstances as it would then be difficult for the victims and their families to receive justice if the perpetrators did not have to face a criminal trial.

 

In reality there is little prospect of telling whether the jury have properly considered the evidence. The colourful case of R v Young (Stephen) (1995) illustrates this. 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.  This in itself is not unusual but what happened next was highly dubious. 

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.

 

There have over the years been a series of unusual and unexpected verdicts which have added fuel to the debate about whether trial by peers really works. These cases show that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the jury have returned a verdict of not guilty. It seems that such decisions are not based upon the evidence which points to a conviction but to the jury wanting to speak out and send a signal that they will not be told what to do and that they are prepared to stand up against the authorities if they feel they have acted badly in some way. In the case of Clive Ponting who was a civil servant who was charged under the Official Secrets Act for leaking information about the sinking of the Argentinian battleship the 'General Belgrano' during the Falklands war, the jury did not convict preferring to accept Ponting's reasons for acting out of conscience.

 

Links are provided below and to the right for you to do more research and add your own opinions making the work your own.

BBC News - Jury age limit to be raised to 75 in England and Wales

Trial by jury: the importance of “ordinary” jurors

Juror's expenses protest costs him £500 fine - Telegraph

When duty calls: solicitor Gordon Turner recounts his experience as ..

No escaping jury duty, lawyers told | UK news | The Guardian

Evaluation of the jury system by The Law Bank YouTube

In this essay the role of the jury and the part the jurors play is examined, it takes a critical look at what it would mean if the jury was no longer used in the court system.

 

(Word Count 1470)

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