The debate about trial by jury

I’ve been following the Vicky Pryce trial for some time, intrigued by the seldom used defence of marital coercion with its lower burden of proof than is usual in the criminal court. What I, and probably everyone else following the trial, was never expecting were the questions asked by the jury of the judge and the intense debate this would cause about the current system of trial by jury. I hate to use the cliché “knee-jerk reaction” but it seems to me that this is exactly what the furore following this story is and I’d like to make the case for continuing with trial by jury in its current form.

First a brief overview, although anyone wanting extra information about the benefits of juries should look at the report of research by UCL dispelling many myths about unrepresentative juries and jury bias. The principle of trial by jury has evolved over time through common law to become fundamental to our legal system, although it’s not a right enshrined in law in the same way as the right to a fair trial is. For this reason trial by jury could be abolished completely or the number of trials that are conducted in this way reduced. The government has actually tried to do this in legislation which would have allowed trials in complex fraud cases to be conducted without a jury, claiming that juries can’t understand such complicated and lengthy cases. Fortunately the legislation didn’t pass but since the Vicky Pryce jury asked 10 such simple questions I fear that many people may try to make the case again that there should be a higher minimum age or minimum IQ for jury members. This is fundamentally wrong.

The underlying principle of trial by jury is that one is tried by one’s peers, people randomly selected from within a crown court catchment area using the electoral roll (exemptions include certain professions and those who can’t speak enough English to understand a trial). If more restrictions are made on who can sit on a jury then we start to restrict a jury to certain groups that don’t necessarily reflect the demographics of a local area and who may have prejudices because of the strata of society they are from. An IQ minimum or some other kind of intelligence criteria will make the jury system seem more elitist and unfair, causing the defendant to no longer feel they are tried by their peers. Indeed a defendant of lower IQ than the minimum required by jurors may feel that they are no longer being tried by their equals in society but their “betters”.

What about the argument that juries be abolished altogether? First it should be remembered that trials involving juries make up only 1% of all trials in this country and these are criminal trials where a conviction would mean the greatest loss to liberty. These are trials where a defendant should be tried by ordinary people who should come to a majority decision before making a conviction or acquittal, not by one or more judges whose role should continue to be to give legal direction and oversee a trial. Judges are highly educated, upper class members of our society, a very small group compared to the diversity seen in the population at large. This would make the legal system seem even more unfair and against the defendant than restrictions to juries. It’s also unfair to judges; if we compare our system to the South African one where there are no juries I think we will see that criticism following decisions made in courts will be highly personal and directed at individual judges.  

I’d like to conclude that in the Vicky Pryce trial the extremely experienced judge commented that this was the first time in his 30 year career he’d come across such simple questions by a jury. This is just one case in thousands and it’s a shame that the media have picked up on this in such a way to criticise the jury system. We should remember the thousands of trials conducted smoothly and the men and women of juries who conscientiously and responsibly perform their civic duty during jury service.

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