Is that a writ in your pocket?

When a female juror propositioned the prosecuting counsel, it led to an appeal - and to calls to lift the cloak of secrecy that surrounds the jury room. Candida Lloyd weighs up the arguments
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The Independent Online

Being sent a bottle of champagne by an amorous women with a note saying, "What does a lady need to do to attract your attention?" would be considered by many men to be a not altogether unwelcome event. But if the admirer in question is a jury forewoman and you happen to be the prosecuting counsel from the case in which she was recently deliberating, then it spells big trouble.

Being sent a bottle of champagne by an amorous women with a note saying, "What does a lady need to do to attract your attention?" would be considered by many men to be a not altogether unwelcome event. But if the admirer in question is a jury forewoman and you happen to be the prosecuting counsel from the case in which she was recently deliberating, then it spells big trouble.

Richard Latham, QC, found himself in precisely that situation, at the end of a serious fraud trial at Southwark Crown Court in London last summer. His response was to return the bubbly and inform the trial judge, defence counsel and the Serious Fraud Office.

This case and two others involving the antics of jurors, heard earlier this month by the House of Lords, once again raised the issue of the sanctity of the jury room and highlighted the cloak of secrecy that surrounds the "12 good men [or women] and true". They also coincide with the publication last week of the largest ever study of jurors' opinions and attitudes, in which 361 men and women who served in courts in London and Norwich were questioned.

The fraud case and the proposed champagne rendezvous inevitably resulted in the defence launching an appeal against the conviction, which was resolved at the Court of Appeal last week.

The court ruled that that no one can inquire into a jury's secret deliberations, and neither the flirtatious woman nor the other members of the jury can be approached.

Lawyers for the three men convicted in the fraud trial will still pursue an appeal, but will be restricted to arguing that, on the face of it, the woman's letter to Latham - who also prosecuted Maxine Carr and Ian Huntley in the recent Soham murder trial - has created "an appearance of bias".

The Appeal Court was upholding a House of Lords decision from the previous week, which ruled by a 4-1 majority that the secrets of the jury room must remain confidential. Dismissing two appeals in which defence lawyers claimed that the secrecy rule could deny a defendant his right to a fair trial, Lord Slynn said that the principle was "essential to the operation of the jury system as we know it".

If the courts were allowed to inquire into what happened in the jury room, jurors would be deterred from being candid in their deliberations, he said.

Three other Law Lords agreed, but a forth, Lord Steyn, said their "restrictive" view would damage the jury system and "gnaw at public confidence in juries". He said there should be exceptions to the rule when evidence emerged that the jury had not acted impartially.

One of the appeals involved an allegation that there was racial bias among jurors who convicted a man of indecent assault. Shabbir ali Mirza, a chef from east London, was jailed for four years after his conviction, by a majority verdict, in February 2001. After the trial, a juror wrote to his barrister alleging bias on the part of members of the jury. This woman, a nurse, claimed that fellow jurors had accused the defendant of being "devious" for using an interpreter when they thought he could understand English. When she objected she claimed that she was "shouted down" by "bigots".

The Court of Appeal refused to admit the letter as fresh evidence and dismissed Mirza's appeal against his conviction, although it agreed that the ban on such disclosures or inquiries into jury room discussions might clash with a defendant's right to a fair trial under the terms of the Human Rights Act.

Defence lawyers are to take both cases to the European Court of Human Rights.

The House of Lords ruling prompted the Department for Constitutional Affairs to announce last week that it would be publishing a consultation paper in the spring considering whether to amend or repeal Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act (1981) to allow research into jury deliberations and to investigate allegations of jury misconduct. The extreme sensitivity surrounding the work of the jury is largely due to this piece of legislation, which makes it illegal to "obtain, disclose or solicit any particulars of statements made, opinions expressed, arguments advanced or votes cast by members of a jury in the course of their deliberations in any legal proceedings".

Until now this strict law has prevented researchers from questioning jurors. But following protracted negotiations with the then Lord Chancellor's department, a team of criminologists, headed by Professor Roger Matthews, from the Centre for Criminology at Middlesex University were given unique access to jurors. The new 88-page report, Jurors' Perceptions, Understanding, Confidence and Satisfaction in the Jury System: a Study in Six Courts, does throw light on the work of the jurors.

While the academics were prevented from discussing individual cases and delving into the controversial question of how jurors came to a verdict, they were able to address a number of issues.

Some 361 men and women were questioned in face-to-face interviews and on the telephone. The survey was based on five courts in the Greater London region, which includes a mix of urban and suburban areas. Norwich Crown Court was also included to add a "rural" dimension to the study.

The study reveals that most jurors feel their time in and around court is a positive one, but for a significant number it can also be a confusing and intimidating experience. Just under two-thirds of those engaging in jury service had a more positive view of the jury system after completing their service. The main factors associated with this positive change were the professionalism of the judge and court staff, and how jurors were treated. But just over a third of jurors felt "intimidated" or were made "very uncomfortable" by the defendant or by the prospect of meeting the accused's family outside the court.

The general atmosphere of the court made 8 per cent of the jurors very uncomfortable, while 6 per cent said the manner of the prosecuting or defending counsel was intimidating. Asian ethnic-minority groups were more likely to feel intimidated than white, black or other groups.

Jurors also complained about having to deal with "trivial" cases that they felt should never have come to court, and nearly one in five jurors said they felt stressed and worried about making a "wrong decision" in giving their verdict. Only 43 per cent said they understood everything that was happening. Jurors were confused by such legal concepts as "beyond reasonable doubt", and were unsure about how to ask the judge a question, or whether they were allowed to take notes.

But, frustratingly, the researchers were not allowed to explore the more juicy and legally controversial areas of why jurors make certain decisions - for example, does a well-argued case put forward either by the defence or the prosecution have any impact on what verdict they bring? Do people feel pressured by fellow jurors or by time constraints? What do people talk about in the jury room? And if a juror finds the leading counsel sexually attractive, is he or she more likely to side with their argument?

Professor Matthews is hoping that his groundbreaking work will help persuade the DCA to allow further, more detailed, research into the work of the jury. He explains: "Juries are unsung heroes: they do their job very quietly and take on enormous responsibility, but very little is known or understood about how they operate."