Letter: Justice in the dock: the fallibility of juries, self-defence, and trial by media

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Sir: The widespread media verdict that Joseph Elliott was guilty of murder, and that it should be open to the Crown to appeal against the jury's finding on the facts, is a rapid and unfortunate volte-face after last week's robust defence of jury trials, as you rightly point out in your leading article today.

Such proposals are unnecessary, will not work in practice and are wrong in principle. The Attorney General already has the right of appeal on a point of law, as does the defence. Although, of course, such an appeal by the prosecution would not affect Mr Elliott's position, it could be used to clarify the law.

Allowing the prosecution the right of appeal would utterly negate the principle of trial by one's peers and lead towards the problems we already see in the non-jury Diplock courts of Northern Ireland. It would mean that jury trial could effectively be bypassed and that the ultimate decision could lie with the judges. This would fatally weaken the fundamental principles of trial by jury.

The media have attempted to argue for, in effect, the abolition of jury trial on the basis of the facts in the Elliott case. The issue of self-defence is controversial and as such is the very situation for which juries are best suited.

The issue of 'reasonable force' is a perfect example of an issue that should be subjected to the scrutiny of 12 members of the public. It is an issue that is volatile, vulnerable to prejudice and constantly in flux, but that is all the more reason for it to be an issue for a jury, in the sense that it is an issue for society and not appropriate for consideration by judges alone.

Every death is a tragedy, but Liberty is very concerned that Mr Elliott, after acquittal by a jury that had seen and heard the evidence, has been convicted by the media, which did not, and which, in some cases, appear to know very little.

Yours faithfully

JOHN WADHAM

Legal Officer

Liberty

London, SE1

15 July

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