In Defence of the Jury System

by Ray_North on February 21, 2013

Unknown-1A little while ago I was prosecuting a rather nasty rape and kidnap. For what it’s worth, the prosecution case was a strong one; for what it’s worth the evidence came out exactly as it should have; and, for what it’s worth, and you’ll have to take my word for this, I prosecuted it with a certain degree of fury that left me feeling that there was no way whatsoever in which the jury could do anything other than convict the defendant.

Of course, you can see what’s coming – after about six hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a question which suggested that they were stuck on a particular aspect of the evidence that all the lawyers and the Judge considered to be entirely irrelevant to the case, but that was what was important to them – the Judge advised them accordingly and properly – and, yes, a couple of hours after that, they came back and found the defendant Not Guilty on all counts.

I have to admit, and I’m not proud of this, and I hate it when I see other barristers do it, but, as the jury sat there, looking decidedly sheepish, I gave them a withering look that urged them all to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Why do I recount that story? Well, because it is one of the very few times in my career at the bar when I’ve honestly and genuinely felt that the jury got it wrong. True there have been times when I’ve been surprised to have won and times when I’ve been annoyed at losing – but this is one of the few times, when I felt that the jury simply got it wrong.

And in a week where our jury system is being pilloried following the difficulties of the Vicky Pryce trial we have to remember that in the vast majority of cases tried by a jury – the jury diligently go about their task (and it’s often a really bloody horrible task) and more often than not get the verdict right.

And it is important not to lose sight of this fact – because it is a fundamental right of all of us to be tried by our peers – not by a Judge who has heard it all before and may not have the same insight into human behaviour and culture as twelve random people.

It is a system which is as fair as any that has ever been devised to uphold a criminal justice system – in fact the presence of a jury and the need to ensure that the evidence is put fairly and properly before them, by its very nature ensures that the trial process in the UK is a fair one.

Contrast this with the circus that is currently ongoing in Pretoria concerning Oscar Pistorious. The absence of a jury system in South Africa means that, within hours of the unfortunate killing of Reeva Steenkamp, there was already a melee of spin and misinformation as all sides strove to get their stories in first. That wouldn’t happen in the UK, where evidence is usually only rehearsed as part of the trial process. Today, I read that the prosecution case is ‘flawed’ because the leading police officer has been charged with attempted murder himself! What! What possible relevance does that have on the guilt or innocence of Pistorious – none, and over here, the Judge would have politely, told anyone attempting to proffer that as a point to go and boil their head!

Vicky Pryce had every right to be tried by jury. She had no say in who the jurors were and could only put her case forward within the constrains of the laws of evidence and procedure – in the event, she had a jury which asked some very pertinent questions and some very odd questions and ultimately couldn’t reach a verdict. What will happen now is that a new jury will hear the evidence afresh and have a chance to deliberate. And whatever happens Ms. Pryce cannot ever say that she wasn’t given a fair chance to put her case before a properly constituted Court.

That isn’t a flawed system, that is as good a system of justice as you could wish for.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Bobby_West February 21, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Totally agree.

My guess is that the questions asked by the Pryce jury were actually to try to deal with a minority of the jury who were not acting rationally in deliberating the case. The majority put the “stupid” questions to the judge expecting to get answers that would help deal with points being unfairly put forward in the jury room. In that sense, this could easily have been a case of the jury system working well.

Just one thought, wouldn’t a police officer here charged, or under suspicion, of attempted murder be taken off duty!

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George_East February 21, 2013 at 8:07 pm

I think your supposition is correct Bobby. The questions are very articulately phrased even if the content of them is ridiculous. Smacks of a way of dealing with difficult/stupid jurors by the majority of the jury.

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Ray_North February 21, 2013 at 8:09 pm

Yep, almost certainly the case Bobby, a couple of jurors confusing the matter. And, yes, a Police Officer charged or even under investigation for an offence of violence would be immediately suspended, however, it is not unheard of for an officer to be involved in giving evidence who has been suspended subsequent to the commission of the offence, and then it would be open to the defence to make an application to have that offence adduced before a jury – a judge would then have to decide if the offence had any relevance to the issue in the case – I’ve never seen a police officer cross-examined on an offence, though I have seen a copper cross-examined about reprehensible behaviour but that is almost always behaviour pertaining to the handling of prisoners or a failure to follow procedure.

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Nick Evans February 22, 2013 at 10:03 am

On the Pistorius case, while it does seem weird to hear so much information during a bail hearing, is this partly because we’re in another country? And so, whatever reporting restrictions may apply in SA (and they do see far more open than us), they don’t apply here, so we get more information than normal?

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Ray_North February 22, 2013 at 10:45 am

You’re right Nick, it is almost certain that the SA system doesn’t have the same laws concerning sub judice and contempt that we do – I’m no expert in their system, but from afar the process of testing the evidence to this degree before the investigation has been completed and proper thought has been put into it, seems ludicrous. Over here, bail applications are made with the judge making two assumptions, first that the Crown have a prima facie case, and second that the defendant has an automatic right to bail – the judge will not waver from the first assumption but will remove the right to bail if the Crown can satisfy him that there is a risk that the defendant will either abscond, tamper with evidence, commit further offences or be at risk. Evidence will rarely be dealt with in such a piecemeal fashion.

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George_East February 22, 2013 at 11:26 am

From a quick look at some South African newspaper sites, I do not think there is much by way of reporting restrictions at all.

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