Juries: To Keep or Not To Keep? That Is the Question!
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Last updated 4 May 2023
Jury service can be seen to be one of the most important civic duties anybody can undertake, instilling confidence in the criminal justice system by the participation of ordinary citizens in its most core function, deciding on the factual matter of guilt in criminal cases...
Statistics show that this aspect of the criminal justice system is supported by the population and multiple defendants charged with either way offences do elect at an allocation hearing for their case to be tried in the Crown Court by their peers, a jury with whom thy can better relate.
Juries can of course be influenced through intimidation and safeguards are put in place to try and prevent this, indeed this was one of the justifications why in 1967, a majority verdict of 10 jurors was seen to be acceptable, so that influencing one or two jurors would have no effect on a trial.
Additionally, jurors themselves can throw trials, as seen in the case of Stephen Young (1994, looking at the murder of two newlyweds. Here four jurors met up and using a Ouija board attempted to contact the spirits of the victims and ask who murdered them, which in turn influenced a guilty verdict. This however once discovered led to a retiral. In another case, one of the jurors reached out to the acquitted defendant, apparently because she saw parallels between their two lives. This led to the two adding each other on Facebook, where they discussed multiple aspects of the case. In the messages the juror stated that the acquitted shouldn’t say anything about their conversations, therefore knowing what she was doing was wrong. The juror’s actions led to the conviction in the case being overturned, as well as the juror, although previously being of good character, being sentenced to eight months imprisonment for their actions. This reflected the gravity of here actions which seen to be in direct contravention of her oath as a juror.
The recent case of 'The Colson Four' (2022) further demostrates jury equity in reaching verdicts when four protesters were acquitted of Criminal Damage by a jury after illegally removing a statute of Edward Colson during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol.
Most recently a study published in The British Journal of Psychology has found that jurors have shown bias when considering the defendants before them based on their religion. It has been seen that defendants who do not swear their evidence in court on a holy book are more likely to be found guilty by jurors with strong religious beliefs. For taking a religions oath in court is regarded as a sign of credibility by jurors, which could mean that those who affirm their evidence without reference to a holy book are discriminated against. This could also extend to the credibility attached to any evidence given under oath in a case. Furthermore, there could be bias attached to any participant in a case by virtue of their religious beliefs being known to the court. Humanists have suggested that the oath and affirmation system be reformed without reference to one’s religious beliefs.
Some countries do not have trial by jury and others have or are considering abandoning this. There has been a radical transformation of the system in France, where now all cases involving crimes with maximum sentences of 15 to 20 years will be tried by courts of five judges rather than involving jurors. This means that now most rape trial will take place without a jury. Although this is in an attempt to speed up an overburdened system, legal professional and academic have criticised the move as representing an affront to democracy.
Scotland is currently considering a proposal to abolish jury trials in rape cases due to concerns that some jurors may have outdated attitudes towards victims which may be resulting in low conviction rates. However, Frances McMenamin KC, the most senior woman in the Scottish Bar has criticised this move as being a dangerous step if judge-only trials take the place of juries. Like many she regards the function of the jury as being fundamental to the criminal justice system.
Questions to consider
- Do you believe overall that there are more advantages or disadvantages as to the use of lay people in the criminal justice system?
- It has been suggested that for complex fraud trials these should not be tried by juries as they cannot understand the evidence, do you agree?
- What type of cases to you think are best suited to trial by juries?
- Jury equity means that Jurors do not need to follow precedent or give any reasons for their decisions. What are your thoughts on this? Does it achieve justice?