Jury System in the Dock Law Essay

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This discussion examines the role of the jury in the current judicial system and asks the question as to whether or not it should be abolished under certain conditions or whether it remains a fundamental facet of British democracy. Trial by jury might afford some protection against the (perhaps largely unconscious) bias of the judiciary, but it is now used only in a minority of cases, and it is proposed to restrict it still further. The debate concerning jury trials is complex and vexatious, with its detractors arguing that it’s archaic and unnecessary in modern society. The jury system can be criticised on several counts for being not only a waste of public funds and extremely time-consuming, but an institution which is exploited by professional criminals. It is also viewed by some as either unfair or over demanding on potentially biased or prejudiced jurors. The classic view of the jury is of a representative cross section of the public who hold the necessary common sense to make a reasoned decision. In an ideal legal system this would be the case, however the competence of the jury is often put into question. A common criticism of the system is that juries are made up of the unemployed and the retired since nowadays most people under 70 can serve on a jury provided they are on the electoral role. Although this has increased the number of professionals available for jury service many jurors have no experience in weighting up evidence. They can also still be excused if cause is shown. Therefore this depends on how strictly applications for excusal are scrutinised in order to nullify the myth that juries are unrepresentative of the middle classes. It is also frequently argued that ethnic minorities are under-represented on juries in Britain and it is obvious that racial bias is a potential problem when an ethnic defendant is tried by an all white jury. In some Crown Courts the lack of ethnic representation remains a problem, which is magnified due to the high proportion of ethnic defendants tried there, often for racially-aggravated crimes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the deliberations of some juries may involve a muddled compromise between diametrically opposed gut reaction of individual jurors, even if most of the time, they seem to follow the guidance of the judge. Yet juries can sometimes show an obstinate independence. A jury acquitted Clive Ponting, a civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, on a charge of breach of the Official Secrets Act in 1984, despite very clear directions from the judge to convict. Ponting had leaked information to a Labour MP because he felt strongly that the conservative government was deliberately misleading Parliament. The fact that jury deliberations are shrouded in secrecy makes it almost impossible to tell if juries take account of irrelevant or inadmissible factors. Despite this severe restriction, recent research, coupled with rare instances of transparency into the jury room, have revealed what the proponents of the jury system do not want to know. Jurors may be disproportionately influenced by evidence they are told to ignore, even to the extent that they afford it more weight than the evidence they are directed to base their decision on. The existence of bias can have a similar distorting affect on the trial; some jurors not only take into account previous convictions but a wide range of extra-curial factors, ranging from the unappealing characteristics of the prosecution witness to the attractiveness of counsel. Some are easily swayed by fast-talking lawyers. The fact that stronger personalities can overrule more timid jurors is also of relevance. In a media-saturated society jurors will often be pre-exposed to material referring to the case they are trying. Inevitably some will pay heed to this external material when deliberating, and in cases where the press orchestrate a campaign of hostility towards one defendant, this can interfere with their right to a fair trial and therefore undermine the fundamental principles of English justice. A major case in which trial by jury has been brought into question in the UK has been in cases of complex fraud. The argument in such cases is very simple, namely that such cases are too complex as to be understood by laymen and therefore to ask ordinary jurors to reach a verdict on such cases is simply unfair and infeasible due to their lack of technical knowledge of the subject matter. Judge only trials are becoming an increasingly common method in common law countries, and some argue that this alternative should be an option in these complex fraud cases or politically sensitive issues such as terrorism. Challenging the traditional idea of trial by jury is viewed by some as neither illiberal nor undemocratic and the case of the Diplock courts in Northern Ireland is evidence that trial by judge alone can be a successful option. Such courts were set up in response to intimidation of both witnesses and jurors and the impact on the jury and cost of providing protection was high. There are, however, many arguments against judge only trials, bringing the essay onto the positive aspects of trial by jury. First, the judiciary cannot refrain from adhering strictly to the letter of the law, even when this is not appropriate. Jury ‘equity’, one of the indicators of a democratic society, is not possible, and this is a distinct disadvantage. The abolishment of trial by jury would also set a dangerous precedent. Secondly, the defendant does not have the benefit of a jury of 12 who bring with them the freshness and insights of those who are new to the system and have not become case-hardened. Moreover, certain inadmissible evidence can be kept hidden from the jury whilst a judge will be privy to all this information. No matter how professional the judge is, in practice it will be nearly impossible to totally disregard any such evidence from their decision. Finally, certain high profile criminal cases attract unyielding media attention. A result of this is that the judge, who lacks the benefit of juror anonymity, could be made subject to personal vilification by the press if their judgment was unpopular. Critics of trial by jury have focused largely on problems extrinsic to the principles of trial by jury such as witness and juror intimidation or cases where jurors may not understand the complex evidence. Such criticisms are valid but should not be seen as criticisms of trial by jury as a system but rather a critique of how the system can be influenced and potentially undermined. The right to trial by one’s peers is an important democratic right and one that guarantees liberties and institutional trust in democratic society in a way in which trial by judge would simply not achieve. The fairness aspect, in that a majority or unanimous decision is required and the perceived success of British justice all point in favour of trial by jury. Over the past 50 years miscarriages of justice caused by the jury have been rare. Overwhelmingly the miscarriages have been due to failure in other parts of the system, such as by police or lawyers. If the evidence put before the jury is flawed, because it is tainted by impropriety, or is inaccurate or incomplete then a flawed result is inevitable. It is important to take into consideration the criticisms put forward and use them to improve the system. Lord Judge has highlighted the need for greater technical assistance for juries, something which could easily be achieved. It is quite possible to improve the services and resources available to juries in the form of technical assistance and an environment free from intimidation. With this in mind and coupled with the integral democratic principles of trial by jury we can conclude that trial by jury should be assisted and developed, but not abolished.

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Jury System In The Dock Law Essay. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved October 3, 2022 , from

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