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Lawyers and juries retain faith in trials

JURORS, judges and lawyers have retained confidence in the legal system despite recent miscarriages of justice, according to the largest survey undertaken of Crown Court trials in England and Wales.

However, the survey, which was carried out for the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, highlights concerns that innocent people are being found guilty in a significant minority of cases.

The research was carried out by Professor Michael Zander, of the London School of Economics, and will carry much weight with the commission when it reports next year. In a speech in London last night, he said: 'The criminal justice system is perhaps working better than we have thought.'

Questionnaires had been sent to about 7,600 jurors and most were completed. Judges, barristers, solicitors and defendants were also sent forms. The answers showed faith in trials and their conclusions, he said.

Jurors said virtually all barristers performed well and most judges were impartial and understandable. Juries were able to comprehend the evidence, even complex scientific issues.

There was also support for the retention of wigs and gowns, with almost 90 per cent of jurors saying that judges should continue to wear them.

Eight out of 10 judges expressed confidence in the jury system. However, 8 per cent of judges did say that the jury system was 'poor'. Judges and lawyers also thought most verdicts were right, although they doubted 15 per cent of decisions. 'Acquittals gave rise to more surprise than convictions,' Professor Zander said. But verdicts were only deemed 'inexplicable' in 2 to 4 per cent of cases. Lord Williams, chairman of the Bar Council, said the results 'confirmed the great value of the jury system'.

Both police and the Crown Prosecution Service were praised by most lawyers. However, in 15 cases, judges expressed concern about police officers' actions and said in four cases disciplinary proceedings should be considered. Professor Zander said: 'Grossed up on an annual basis, these four cases would represent more than 100 cases a year.'

Defendants who had been found guilty were generally prepared to accept that the judge had been fair and their barrister competent. However, Professor Zander stressed that only 19 per cent of defendants had replied, and most of these had been acquitted.

Nevertheless, more than 10 per cent of defendants who pleaded guilty said they had not committed the offence. In more than 50 per cent of contested cases, defendants met their barristers on the day of the trial with one-third of the meetings lasting less than 15 minutes. One in three defendants said they did not have enough time with counsel.

Anne Owers, director of the legal reform group Justice, said: 'What comes across is that . . . there is a minority of cases where there is concern and the system needs to be able to address that.'