It would be all too easy to interpret the House of Lords' refusal to curb our right to trial by jury as the support of one doomed institution for another. Tony Blair presumed as much when he described the vote, with typical condescension, as "shameful" and vowed to have it overturned in the House of Commons. But this is one of those rare occasions when the country has good reason to offer thanks for the lords and ladies in ermine.
In its persistent attempts to reduce the number of jury trials, the Government has cited a host of reasons. This time around, ministers claimed that people were reluctant to serve on juries when a complex case could last for as long as a year. Backed up by police chiefs, ministers also cited the supposedly spiralling problem of jury nobbling and the expense of jury protection as reasons to have judges try such hazardous cases alone. But there is no shortage of people willing to serve as jurors. And if jury nobbling is such a problem, there must be other ways of tackling it than abolishing the institution of the jury.
On previous occasions, ministers have complained that too much time is wasted by people opting for a jury trial, even though the case is minor and the evidence conclusive. They have also argued - as politely as they can - that ordinary citizens are just not bright enough to grapple with the intricacies of serious fraud cases, which would be more efficiently heard by judges and specialist panels. This must be challenged. In my experience - which I will come to - any inadequacy in the IQ department is more than outweighed by a generous endowment of common sense, a commodity not always so evident among politicians and lawyers.
The real reasons why the Government is so intent on restricting jury trials, I suspect, boil down to just three: cost, cost and the belief that "too many" people get off.
If costs must be cut, my preference would be for the Government to return to the idea it first thought of. There may well be too many people opting for a jury trial whose cases could satisfactorily be heard in a magistrates' court. There may well be room for the exercise of more discrimination in deciding which cases are tried by a jury.
Even so, the opportunities for cutting costs are probably not great. Nor should they be. Last year, I was called to jury service at a Crown Court in central London. This is not the Old Bailey. Most cases are unspectacular - drug crime, robbery and the like. The case before our jury was a bit different, but it was also a classic example of why trial by jury has been an enduring part of justice in this country, and why it deserves to be not only retained, but cherished.
In the dock was a police constable of 12 years' standing who was charged with assault and affray. On the face of it, the case was simple. One summer night, the constable, then based at a London police station, had been called to a pub brawl. In the course of the fracas, he had used his baton and CS spray; and one of the pub regulars sustained a cut to his head which required hospital treatment. The injured man lodged a formal complaint against the constable; this led to an internal inquiry and - ultimately - to the criminal charges that were the subject of the trial.
The question for the jury was whether the officer had exceeded his powers as a policeman when - as no one disputed - he wielded his baton and spray. Had he, as the prosecution claimed, been out of control and a danger to himself and the public? Or had he, as the defence insisted, used only as much force as was necessary to protect himself and a fellow officer in a situation that had got out of control? A majority of the pub witnesses called, along with a number of the PC's fellow officers and superiors, testified for the prosecution. This breach in police solidarity was identified by the prosecution as highly unusual and evidence of guilt almost by itself. Just three officers - one of them the constable's superior officer in his previous posting at another London station - testified in his defence. The forensic evidence was inconclusive.
The more evidence that was produced, however, the more apparent it became that the trial was not just about the constable in the dock, but about many practices and policies of the Metropolitan Police, including the policy known as "sensitive" or "softly, softly" policing. It was also about the closed culture of some stations, which makes it hard for someone new or difficult to be accepted as one of the lads.
The officer on trial looked and sounded like exactly the sort of recruit the Met should have been crying out for. He was educated beyond degree level and was an accomplished sportsman. He also had experience of the wider world, through living and travelling abroad and a spell in pensions and insurance before he joined the police.
It emerged that there were two distinct groups of officers at the station: a contingent portrayed by the defence counsel as low-ranking time-servers who divided their time between desk duties and extended sick leave as they waited to qualify for their pension, and a number of highly ambitious officers, who remained hardly long enough to learn the local street layout. Neither group, it seemed, was particularly interested in a new, though experienced, constable who risked rocking the boat by trying to engage in some serious real-life policing.
It is fair to say that the officer concerned would have been a challenge to any management. He came across as headstrong, insubordinate, even arrogant - but also honest. It must also be said that his superiors at his previous station had coped and won their obstreperous junior's respect and that those of his colleagues who testified in his defence came across as decent and guileless in a way that many prosecution witnesses did not.
Such subjective impressions and judgements are a crucial aspect of any trial by jury, and for me they were decisive. In opting for the case to be heard by a jury, the PC and his counsel were effectively asking for his conduct on that June night to be judged by representatives of the people who indirectly employ the police - in other words, you and me.
We had to decide not only how the officer behaved, but how hard is too hard in the case of a baton strike, how much CS gas is too much in the context of a brawl - how we want our streets to be policed. Guidelines, written or spoken, are of only so much use to the police in extremis.
So when the constable was acquitted, as he was in the short space of two hours, the verdict was not only a vindication of one individual, but an indictment of a whole unfortunate set of circumstances that had landed him in the dock.
Throughout the 14-day trial, all 12 of us were always punctual - despite the vagaries of public transport - and almost painfully conscientious. For myself, I became convinced that a decent man was on trial and I believe justice was done in a way that strict observance of the small print of the law might not have allowed.Reuse content