Let's shed some light on the mysteries of the jury room

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The Independent Online

The European Convention on Human Rights has had the force of law in this country for 50 years, but the business of inscribing those rights in a British Act of Parliament turns out to have far-reaching consequences. Many of these were not foreseen when Labour promised the Human Rights Act, which comes into force in October, although it could have been guessed that making basic human rights enforceable in British courts would transform our legal culture for the better.

The European Convention on Human Rights has had the force of law in this country for 50 years, but the business of inscribing those rights in a British Act of Parliament turns out to have far-reaching consequences. Many of these were not foreseen when Labour promised the Human Rights Act, which comes into force in October, although it could have been guessed that making basic human rights enforceable in British courts would transform our legal culture for the better.

The latest proposal - that juries should be required to give the reasons for their verdicts - is a good example. No doubt Europhobes will seize on the plan as the latest evidence of a plot by "Europe" to subvert Britain's legal system.

Instead, it should be welcomed as breathing the fresh air of openness and accountability into a fusty jury system much in need of reform. It should be pointed out that the European Convention on Human Rights is not an instrument of the European Union, and that it was drafted, in large part, by British lawyers. And Article 6 of the Convention requires that anyone found guilty by a court should be given reasons for the decision. Lord Justice Auld, the Appeal Court judge asked to review the criminal justice system, is expected to argue that this applies to British juries and to recommend that juries record their conclusion on each of the main points at issue in a given case.

The jury system is a vitally important feature of the British legal system. But it would be a weak case to argue that it was in some way incompatible with basic human rights. Anything which provides more information about the way juries work is a good thing. It is about time we British shook off our excessive reverence for the sanctity of deliberations in the jury room. We would not have to go as far as in the United States, but it was healthy that the American public knew that the jury in the OJ Simpson case thought he was guilty and acquitted him because they disliked the Los Angeles Police Department.

It might be argued that Lord Justice Auld's proposal would make the jury system more cumbersome, that it would reduce the mystical processes of ancient British fair-play to "tick-box justice". But the attempt to introduce some rigour into jury deliberations is welcome. Decisions about people's guilt or innocence are so important that they are worth a little extra paperwork.

Nothing is so good about the jury system as it stands that it cannot be improved and human rights better protected.

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