The verdict’s in on juries
From the Law Society Gazette 19/02/10:
Critics of the jury system often recite the argument that trial by jury equates to trial by the prejudiced and ignorant, suggesting that juries are all to [sic] often made up of the long-term unemployed because anyone clever enough can get out of jury service. They question whether jurors can be trusted to go beyond the defendant’s appearance and see through the obfuscation, confusion and clever arguments advanced by lawyers, to determine the truth.
Research published this week by the Ministry of Justice does seem to vindicate the jury system. The report, Are Juries Fair, compiled by Cheryl Thomas of the University of London, concluded that juries are fair and do not discriminate on racial grounds, convicting in around 60% of cases.
The research did show that many jurors did not fully understand their responsibilities or the legal directions given by the judge before they retire. The blame for this cannot be attributed to the juror system or the stupidity of jurors, but surely indicates that judges should try to be clearer in their directions.
As someone who isn’t particularly pro or anti juries, I’ve always been able to see the benefits of having defendants tried by their peers whilst being mindful of the drawbacks inherent in using them. I think this report has confirmed that juries still have a vital role to play in the modern criminal justice system but they aren’t some kind of panacea. I for one certainly don’t have an issue with use of juries being restricted, though I know I’m inviting a barrage of abuse from pro-jury advocates in just saying so. Oh well – bring it on!
As for judges needing to be clearer in their directions to jurors, I think that was largely self-evident in courts up and down the country well before the research was commissioned. There’s plenty of room for improvement with suggestions for greater use of plain language in oral direction and wider use of written directions – similarly clear – and perhaps more innovative use of aides-mémoire.