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Criminal jury trials working well, say lawyers and MPs

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, says justice select committee chair

22 March 2017

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Jury trials in the criminal justice system are working well, lawyers and MPs have said, but difficulties remain for jurors in understanding the law.

At a time of fiscal stringency there have been calls to reduce the use of jury trials. Last night their importance to the UK criminal justice system was highlighted by a five-person panel, all with a legal background, at an event hosted by social think tank Politeia at BPP University.

Peter Crisp, dean and CEO, BPP University Law School, said: 'The jury system is the jewel in the crown of the British criminal justice system in which verdicts are seen to be those of society rather than the state. Whilst it is by no means a perfect system it has proved time again to be a bulwark against the abuse of state power.'

Sir Edward Garnier QC MP, the former solicitor general, added that juries ‘by and large probably gave the right result in most cases’ in what is a ‘system of common sense’.

Fellow panellist Bob Neill MP, the chair of the justice select committee agreed and said justice being carried out by members of the public ‘gives them a buy-in’. On the current system he added, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’.

The former criminal barrister acknowledged that ‘jurors do sometimes behave in rash and irrational ways but any institution is capable of human error.’ Neill added that the ‘nature of the ingredients of the offence’ can cause difficulty for jurors to reach decisions, particularly in fraud or homicide cases.

Jeremy Dein QC, a criminal defence barrister at 25 Bedford Row, said he was a ‘fervent supporter’ of juries which are ‘incredibly efficient’. He too told the engaged audience, which included criminal law commissioner David Ormerod QC, there were difficulties for jurors in understanding the law.

Panellist Cheryl Thomas, a professor of judicial studies at University College London, discussed some of her findings on the impact of judges’ legal directions. Thomas’s study of juries published in 2010 found that two-thirds of jurors in criminal trials did not fully understand the directions given to them.

In a separate study carried out by Thomas in 2012-13, all of the 70 per cent of jurors who received written directions found them helpful. Among the 30 per cent who did not, 85 per cent of them would have liked them.

Thomas also drew attention to the 82 per cent of jurors who would have liked more guidance on conducting deliberations. Examples of the guidance deemed helpful included: what to do if confused about a legal issue (49 per cent) and how to ensure no one is pressured into a verdict (45 per cent).

Professor Ormerod QC has co-authored the most recent guidance on summing up cases for crown court judges and recorders to help jurors’ understanding of trials. The guidance and previous editions were introduced to ‘alleviate mistakes on straightforward points’.

While access to more information about the case inside the court is imperative to securing justice, accessing information via the internet can have the opposite effect.

In 2011, Joanne Fraill became the first juror to be prosecuted for contempt of court for using the internet and was sentenced to eight months in prison. Fraill had conducted research about one of the male defendants in a multimillion pound drug trial and spoke on Facebook to that defendant’s partner who had already been acquitted.

A year later, the Law Commission was asked to carry out research into the effect of juror contempt on the justice system and potential solutions, which ultimately led to the creation of a new criminal offence for jurors conducting prohibited research.

Sir Edward Garnier, who presented the case against Fraill, said last night that this new measure was vital to protecting the integrity of the jury system.

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @lex_progress

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Crime White collar crime Courts & Judiciary

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JURIES