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The Jury - Fit for purpose or do we need to think again?

Trial by jury is often seen as the cornerstone of our criminal legal system but is the jury system fit for purpose? There has been considerable scrutiny of such with the recent Channel 4 programme which filmed two separate juries of 12 people listening to the dramatised trial of a defendant and recorded them in the jury room. Normally the subject of jury deliberations are secret so this televised social experiment to see how juries function, was intriguing as to how decisions were formulated as a group.

For juries can’t be questioned on their decisions, which is important for secrecy but without giving reasonings for their decisions, these can be called into question. Although the function of a perverse verdict has led to considerable important decisions in the criminal justice system. Despite this there have been calls to move to the Danish system where jurors are trained and paid to act in this role for 12 months periods.

Juries have been a feature of our legal system for centuries, with jury service being one of the most important civic duties a person can perform. Drawn at random from the Electoral Roll therefore trying to be the most representative of society, of course however all juries come with bias and preconceptions which may act either in favour or against the defendant. Of course defendants have a right to elect for trial by jury in either way offences and many do, preferring to be tried by their peers rather than magistrate who may be seen to be far removed from the ordinary court user. The stakes on which a jury must decide are so high, but with complex legal matters to consider this can be problematic as over 70 per cent of jurors couldn’t remember the law as explained to them. Indeed this case concerned a complex area of the law, the distinction between murder and manslaughter.

Based on a real case the programme looked at whether the killing of a wife at the hands of her husband was murder or if the partial defence of loss of control could be applied to reach a verdict of voluntary manslaughter and reduce the mandatory life sentence to that of a discretionary life sentence. The law on this is contained in ss54-55 Coroners and Justice Act 2009, that a defendant is not to be convicted of murder if their act in killing resulted from a loss of control, meaning they did not act with considered judgement or normal powers of reasoning (R v Jewell) which came from a qualifying trigger of fear or anger as seen in s55(4), that things said or done constituted circumstances of an extremely grave character and caused the defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged which is an objective test which the jury must decide on. Thus, under s54(1)(c) the jury will decide whether a person of the defendant’s sex and age, with a normal degree of tolerance and self-restraint and in the defendant’s circumstances, might have reacted in the same or in a similar way to the defendant. This is a difficult area of the law which is hard to show in court with a high threshold and does not often succeed. Indeed in this instance one jury found the defendant guilty of murder whilst the other found them guilty of manslaughter. Where two sets of twelve people hearing the exact same evidence came to different verdicts does this highlight the problems with this system? Should there be more transparency and should jurors have to give reasoned judgments? Magistrates do when dealing with less serious offences.

Considered in the programme was the pressure on jury, with some of them being emotionally affected by the contents of the trial. Of course, when considering graves offences such as fatal offence this can be seen to be expected, but there is no counselling or support offered to juries at the end of a trial despite the grave job they are faced with. The weight of making a decision on someone’s liberty and deciding on the incarceration of a life can have a heavy toll on someone.

Questions to consider

  • Do you believe juries offer a fair trial? What are the advantages and disadvantages of trial by jury?
  • According to the text, what are benefits of the Danish jury system?
  • According to the text, what must be shown to prove the partial defence of loss of control?

Gemma Shepherd-Etchells

Gemma is an experienced Law teacher and examiner.

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