Although there have been suggestions that trial by jury should be reduced, the English legal reforms have never attempted to completely abolish the jury system. In fact, reforms have actively tried to encourage participation (most recently in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which abolished the right to excusal on the basis of professions such as doctors and lawyers). Jurors do not need any relevant qualification; however they need to have a clean criminal record, be able to speak the relevant language and have good reasoning.
The only people who do not qualify for jury service are those who are mentally unstable. To be excused from jury service one will need to have a credible reason or have a duty that is of more importance than jury service. The role of the jurors is to come to a decision based on the facts presented. Trial by jury has in the past been described as “more than an instrument of justice and more than one wheel of the constitution: it is the lamp that shows that freedom lives”. 13. Jurors are meant to be independent assessors and are intended to promote natural justice.
However, the jury, which constitutes twelve randomly chosen individuals from an electoral register, requires a hugely expensive amount of preparation to summon and reimburse the twelve members required. Furthermore, voter registration can be imperfect, often with poorer and ethnic minorities not registering and therefore not even included in the pool of potential jurors. Arguments that favour the jury system are public participation and the ability to judge according to conscience.
Juries allow the ordinary citizen to take part in the administration of justice in order that verdicts are seen to be those of society rather than of the judicial system therefore satisfying the constitutional tradition of the judgment by one’s peers. Lord Denning described jury service as giving ‘ordinary fold their finest lesson in citizenship’. 14 The jury then adds certainty to the law, since it gives a general verdict which cannot give rise to misinterpretation. In a criminal case the jury simply states that the accused is guilty or not guilty, and gives no reasons.
Consequently, the decision is not open to dispute. Secrecy ensures freedom of discussion in the jury room; protects jurors from outside influences and prevents reluctance to sit on juries. It further ensures finality of verdict regardless of whether popular or not. The major milestone in the history of the jury that brought about the principle of ‘the ability to judge according to conscience’ came in Bushell’s Case (1670)15 who was cleared of alleged misconduct as a juryman.
Before this, judges would try to bully juries into convicting the defendant, particularly where the crime had political overtones, but in this case it was established that the jury’s members were the ‘solid judges of fact, with the right to give a verdict according to their conscience’16, and therefore could not be penalized for taking a view of the facts opposed to that of the judge. The importance of this power in the modern legal system is that juries may acquit a defendant, even when the law demands a guilty verdict.
Because juries have the ultimate right to find defendants innocent or guilty, they are seen as a vital protection against oppressive or politically motivated prosecutions and as a safety net for those cases where the law demands a guilty verdict when genuine justice does not. For example, in R v Kronlid and Others (1996)17: the defendants were three women who broke into a British Aerospace factory and caused damage costing over i?? 1. 5 million to a Hawk fighter plane. The women admitted doing this and left a video explaining their actions in the plane’s cockpit.
They claimed that they had a defence under Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967, which provides that: ‘it is lawful to commit a crime in order to prevent another (usually more serious) crime being committed, and that this may involve using ‘such force as is reasonable in all the circumstances’. 18 The defendants pointed out that the plane was part of a consignment due to be sold to the Government of Indonesia, which was involved in oppressive measures against the population of East Timor, a region forcibly annexed by Indonesia in 1975.
However, the prosecution gave evidence that the Indonesian government had given assurances that the planes would not be used against the East Timorese, that the British government had accepted this and granted an export license. In the face of the clear evidence that they had caused the damages they were widely expected to be convicted. The jury found them all not guilty. As juries are not legal experts they are not bound to follow precedent in previous cases or even adhere to Acts of Parliament. They do not have to give reasons for their decision and are only expected to reach a verdict on the basis of fairness.
This is known as jury equity. However as a result of such a verdict as that of R v Kronlid and Others (1996) it could be argued that juries undermine the rule of law and Parliamentary sovereignty as no ‘learned’ judgment means no accountability or justification for their decision. The jury process is admittedly time-consuming for all involved and is unduly long, with juries spending much of their time waiting around to be summoned into court. The fact that everything has to be explained in layman’s terms and directed to the jury in addition to the judge means that jury trials take a considerable amount of time.
This may be manipulated by defendants who choose trial by jury in a bid to make use of the delays. This can pressurise the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to settle with a less serious charge. Prosecution witness may not turn up or forget facts, and time on remand is more privileged than time in prison as a convicted offender. Despite the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which makes it an offence to intimidate or threaten to harm jurors ‘jury nobbling’ (corrupting the jury) is another problem with relation to the amount of time it takes to reach a verdict.
However, The Criminal Procedure and Investigation Act 1996, allows the prosecution to retry an acquitted defendant if someone is subsequently convicted of interfering with jurors. On the other hand a few members of a jury can be influential, even intimidating, in swaying the minds of less assertive jurors and it has been argued that juries are more susceptible to intimidation or bribery than legal professionals. In addition to this, while jurors are deliberating during the trial the judge will usually tell them at the end of each day not to make any enquiries into the case.
Despite this, it is by no means impossible that publicity outside of the court house, particularly the internet, may have affected the extent to which jurors can reasonably be expected to heed the judge’s directions about not looking for information regarding their case. It further causes distress to jury members. Juries trying cases involving serious crimes of violence, particularly rape, murder or child abuse, may have to listen to deeply distressing evidence, and in some cases to inspect graphic photographs of injuries.
It is inevitable that some jurors may be biased for or against certain groups and individual prejudices can be unchallenged in the jury setting and even go unnoticed. For example, they may favour attractive members of the opposite sex, or be prejudiced against the police. Bias appears to be a particular problem in libel cases, where juries prejudiced against newspapers award huge damages, apparently using them punitively rather than as compensation for the victim.
One argument is that of Lord Denning who suggests that ‘the selection of jurors is too wide, resulting in jurors that are not competent to perform their take. ’19 Praising the ‘golden age’ of jury service when only ‘responsible heads of household from a select band of the middle classes’ were eligible to serve, he claimed that changes have led to jurors being summoned who are not sufficiently intelligent or educated to perform their task properly. Denning suggested that jurors should be selected in much the same way as magistrates are, with interviews and references required.
This throws up several obvious problems: a more complicated selection process would be more time-consuming and costly, finding sufficient people willing to take part might prove difficult and a jury that is intelligent and educated can still be biased and may be more likely to be so if drawn from a narrow social group. However, unlike magistrates who have been criticized for the fact that they are mostly white males from middle class backgrounds, it is arguable that the jury is a much more reliable system in terms of representation because of the diversity in terms of age, sex and ethnicity.
Despite the lack of training or expertise within the jury system it remains well regarded and is seen by many as a cornerstone of our justice system thus making the decisions of juries more widely accepted. Not only this, but it is also regarded as an ancient principle of justice as trial by peers was codified in the Magna Carta in 1215. “No man is to be fined or imprisoned merely by the will of the state, but only by the judgement of his equals”20
All in all, it would appear on the evaluation that the advantages of lay personnel in the English legal system do indeed outweigh the disadvantages, thus it is evident that these key court personnel significantly contribute to the effective functioning of the court system. The main problem must be the danger in their lack of understanding of the law and whether or not the narrow background of lay personnel and other legal advocates allows them to sympathise with the general public and reflect true justice is a matter which is questionable.
Alter, K. (2009), Oxford Dictionaries Staff, ‘The Oxford English Dictionary’ O. U. P Burney, E. (1979), ‘Magistrate, Court and Community’, Hutchinson, London. Downs, A. (1957), ‘An Economic Theory of Democracy’, Harper ; Row, New York. Elliot, C. and Quinn, F. (2009), ‘English Legal System’, 10th edn. , Pearson Education Limited, Essex. Gillespie, A. (2009), ‘The English Legal System’, 2nd Ed, O. U. P. Joyce, P. (2006), ‘Criminal Justice: An introduction to crime and the criminal justice system’, Willan Publishing, Devon. Malleson, K. (2007), ‘The Legal System’, 3rd Edn, New York, Oxford University Press.