How effective is the system of trial by jury? Are there any improvements that could be made or better alternatives that exist?
The jury system has been in use for hundreds of years and was confirmed under Magna Carta 1215; however the system of trial by jury can be traced back to the reign of Henry II (1154-1189). The system by which we are familiar with today, i.e. juries giving verdicts on the basis of what is related to them by witnesses at the court hearing was coming into prominence in trials of serious offences as early as the fifteenth century.
The jury is found in the Crown Court and sit for indictable offences. Juries consist of 12 people of either sex, swearing on the Bible or equivalent religious text, swear to: “Well and truly try the case and give a true verdict according to the evidence”. The law on juries is governed by the Juries Act 1974, as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
Much comment has been made about the jury system and its effectiveness and value to society. In this essay I will attempt to explore the advantages and disadvantages, before finishing this essay with an evaluative passage to sum up my findings.
There are several advantages of the system of trial by jury. Firstly, the general public acceptance of the way the jury system works. As I have already stated, the jury system has been around for many years, almost 800 years now; the fact that the jury has stood the test of time has given society a feeling of acceptance that this is the best way to decide on the outcome of indictable offences.
Secondly, the jury system gives the public a chance to participate in the legal process. Selection for jury service is basically a lottery. If the three conditions required for jury service are met; the persons name appears on the electoral register; they are aged between 18 and 70; and have lived in the U.K for at least 5 years since their 13th birthday, then there is every chance that any person could be selected for jury service. Most members of the public find this an exciting insight into the legal system; however some people find the experience extremely costly as it means that they cannot work while the trial is in progress.
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A third advantage is that the jurors are totally impartial and the decision is made purely on opinion. Obviously this opinion must be heard in a majority vote of at least 10 out of 11 or 9 out of 10 jurors. The jurors vary rarely know much about the legal procedure and are therefore not case-hardened as Judges would be should they be introduced, as in alternative suggestions to the jury system.
Fourthly, the public of England and abroad have great confidence that the cases have been tried fairly and that the system is effective. With the public having great confidence in the system, it is very difficult politically to alter the system. For example, when Diplock Courts were introduced into Northern Ireland, these were greeted with displeasure as it tampered with the jury system. These courts are used in terrorist cases and are judge only courts with no jury.
A simple yet very significant reason as to why the jury system is advantageous is the fact that 12 heads are better than 1. With 12 jurors, a wide variety of opinions and input is culminated together in the final decision; a single judge has only one viewpoint and this is purely of the legal perspective.
Finally, decisions can be made on what seems right and not whether the offence is illegal or not. By this I mean that, if the defended acted in good heart and can convince the jury that his/hers action was reasonable in the circumstances, then the jury are able to acquit the defendant. A judge can only administer a verdict based on the facts laid before whereas a jury can decide based on opinion. This point has been evident in numerous recent cases such as R v Ponting (1985) - In this case official secrets were disclosed however Ponting successfully argued that the secrets were disclosed in the interest of the nation and was acquitted by the jury. A further example was R v Kronlid and Others (1996)- In this case Kronlid and others caused £1.5 million worth of damage to a fighter aircraft that was to be sold to the Indonesian Government. Kronlid successfully argued that the plane would be used to tyrannize the people of East Timor and was acquitted by the jury.
All of the above are reasons as to why the jury system is advantageous. I will now explore disadvantages of the system.
Firstly, as the selection for jury service (governed by section 1 of the Juries Act 1974 as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 1988) is totally down to chance, there is the realistic possibility that incompetent people, who are unable to deal with the court atmosphere, may be selected for jury service. This occurred in R v Chapman (1974) when a deaf juror sat through the trial without hearing a word of the trial. The Court of Appeal also decided that the juror had not prejudiced the trial and therefore the decision stood. After this case, Lord Denning caused for a suitability test to be introduced to decide on whether the juror is adequate to perform, however this could result in huge financial cost.
Secondly retrials are very expensive. The jury do not have to agree, and should they disagree, a retrial would have to be arranged. The introduction of a single judge or a panel of judges to decide would abolish this problem, as the judge would decide one way or the other. As well as retrials being expensive, the trial by jury itself costs lots more than what it would to employ a single judge to sit on the trial. This is a considerable amount and is comparatively much more expensive to the taxpayer than what a single judge would be.
Thirdly, jurors may not fully understand the trial and may be enticed to vote for the best barrister and not the best case.
A realistic problem is that jurors can be corrupted by outside influences. As jurors are not paid, only compensated for loss of earnings, then some may be tempted to accept a bribe to vote to acquit the defendant.
There is the growing feeling that certain jurors are more dominant than others and therefore dominate the jury room. Jurors can be effectively bullied into agreeing with the dominant juror.
As jurors are laymen, if the evidence points to one defendant being guilty and the other not, jurors can often be led into thinking that if one should be convicted, so should the other; in other words: guilt by association.
A seemingly obvious problem with the use of laymen in the administration of justice is that mistakes must inexorably occur. A study done over around 370 trials at Birmingham Crown Court in the late 1970’s showed three startling results: that 25% of all acquittals were questionable; that 5% of all convictions were questionable; and that there was comprehensible evidence that some trials were racially biased.
A further reason as to the disadvantages of the jury system is that some trials can be very harrowing to the jurors. This was evident in the James Bulger trial where some jurors had to receive counselling after the trial.
Despite all of the disadvantages with the jury system, it is still utilized today which suggests that it is an advantage to society more than it is a disadvantage. Possible reforms have been suggested but so far have not been introduced. Some of the possible reforms are:
- Giving the jurors a written record of everything that has been happened in the trial so that no facts can be missed.
- Videotaping the trial and then making this available to the jury in the jury room.
- As Lord Denning suggested as a result of the R v Chapman (1974), a suitability test could be introduced.
- Pay full loss of earnings to jurors to the exact amount of what a juror would have earned in the duration of the trial.
- Remove the accuser’s right to ask for a trial by jury if the offence can be dealt with in the Magistrates Court.
As well as possible reforms, complete alternatives have been suggested to the jury system. All, in principle, sound realistic proposals, however the disadvantages of the possible alternatives far outweigh the disadvantages of the current system. Here are four suggested alternatives and their accompanying disadvantages:
- Single Judge- this alternative means that there would be only one viewpoint towards the outcome; also, a judge sees the trial only in a legal context.
- Panel of Judges- These would be hugely expensive, way too much to be able to be realistically paid. Also, the judges would act purely with a professional view.
- Judge and lay jurors- this would be problematic, as the judge would dominate the discussion.
- ‘Professional’ Jurors- this would also be problematic, as the jury would become casehardened and would no longer be laymen.
These suggestions are all possible alternatives and could be implemented. However, it has to be said that if an alternative to the jury system were to be introduced, it would have been already. The jury system has served society well over the past 800 years. The public have confidence in the system and accept that it is the best way to decide indictable only offences. Any alternative that could be introduced would be done under mass political pressure and would be widely opposed. Despite some flaws in the system, there is no alternative that is as advantageous with fewer disadvantages. Unless a revolutionary new idea is fathomed at some point in the future, the jury system will continue to so serve the public well.