The role of juries in civil and criminal cases

Juries are seen as playing an important role in our legal system. Juries have been used as part of our legal system for more than one thousand years.

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Juries are seen as playing an important role in our legal system. Juries have been used as part of our legal system for more than one thousand years but it was not until trial by ordeal was done away with in 1215 that they became an integral part of our criminal justice system. In the same year Magna Carta also formally acknowledged the principle of an individual’s right to trial by their peers. Set out below is the role of juries in criminal cases a description of their role in civil cases follows.


Juries are used in trials in the Crown Court. The jurisdiction of the Crown Court provides for the hearing of more serious offences on indictment. The offenders will have first appeared in the Magistrates’ Court committed or indicted to trial at the Crown Court. If there is a not guilty plea there will be a jury trial. If a guilty plea is entered then there will be no need for a trial and the Judge will decide upon the appropriate sentence.


The jury is randomly selected from persons entered on the electoral register and they must not be involved in any way with the case. They are required to make an informed decision about whether the accused is guilty or innocent. The jury is told by the trial judge that they must base their decision upon the evidence put before them during the trial and not upon anything else, including things said outside of the court or anything they may have read.


The jury must therefore listen to the evidence but their role may also include being made aware of physical exhibits and photographs and in some complex cases may include accompanied visits to crime scenes. Towards the end of the trial, and once all the evidence has been presented by both sides, it is the job of the trial judge to assist the jury in their task by summing up the evidence and directing them as to what the law is. After the summing up, the jury are put in the hands of a jury bailiff who is sworn in and made aware of their duties by the trial judge.


The jury leaves the court and must retire to a jury room where they are required to deliberate and come to a decision as to whether the defendant is guilty or not. The jury will deliberate in private. As part of the trial judge’s direction to the jurors regarding what is required of them he or she will explain that a unanimous decision is required. There are 12 jurors and this means that all of them must agree on the verdict. Time will be allowed for the jury to reach a verdict.


In the event that the jury fail to agree and are unable to reach a verdict, the trial judge will give further guidance and may well direct that the court will accept a majority decision this is normally 11:1 or 10:2.The trial judge will mention the basis upon which they should decide the case.


The responsibility for making out the case against the defendant is upon the prosecution. The jury must be satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty before they can reach such a verdict. The modern equivalent is that they must be 'sure’ that the accused did what he or she is accused of. A jury foreman will be identified and selected by the members of the jury. The foreman or spokesperson will announce the verdict in open court.


The jury does not have to give any explanation or reasoning for their decision. At this stage the jury will have done what has been asked of them. The trial judge is likely to thank them for their work and dismiss them. In the event of a particularly complex or difficult case the trial judge may direct that the members of the jury are relieved of further jury service for a specified period of time. The jury are also reminded that their work, including their deliberations and details of how they may have voted, is to be kept private & confidential.

Juries have a more limited role in civil cases. It is probably fair to say that it is only in exceptional cases that a jury is used in civil cases. The jury sits mainly in the High Court and County Court, these two courts being courts of first instance. The appellate courts, i.e. Divisional Courts, Appeal Courts and the House of Lords do not sit with a jury. Juries are only used in cases of defamation, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and civil fraud. Even then the parties to the litigation or the judge allocated to the case may agree to dispense with the use of a jury. It is theoretically possible for juries to be used in personal injury cases but this is only in exceptional circumstances.


In civil cases the role of the jury is to decide upon liability. Their job is made slightly easier than in criminal cases in that the burden of proof is based in civil cases upon the balance of probabilities’ and not beyond all reasonable doubt’ as in criminal cases. This is to do with the fact that the consequences for the losing party, whilst they may be dire, are not as serious as a criminal conviction which carries the stigma that goes with it and the risk of a custodial sentence.


In civil cases the usual order for compensation is an award of damages, when used, the jury also decides on the amount of damages to be awarded with guidance from the judge.


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This essay is about juries and their role in civil and criminal cases. It deals with the historical importance of juries and mentions trials by ordeal and Magna Carta 1215 and the principle of trial by their peers.

The use of juries in Crown Court trials is then discussed including a 'guilty plea'; random selection; the need for the juries decision to be based on the facts of the case; guilt or innocence; summing up the evidence and that deliberations of the jury are in private.

The essay then goes on to talk about unanimous and majority verdicts; the need to be 'sure' or to be satisfied 'beyond all reasonable doubt'; the jury foreman and the principle that juries do not have to give any reasons for their decision.

The trial judges role is also mentioned including the possibility that the judge may direct that the jury are relieved from further jury service in the future.

The essay then moves on to discuss the more limited role of juries in civil cases; the fact that they normally sit in the High Court and County Courts and that they are usually used in cases of defamation, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and civil fraud but then only to decide upon liability; the burden of proof which is 'the balance of probabilities' and the amount of compensation with guidance from the judge.