Rough justice from the court jesters

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The Independent Online
"I was confused as to whether I could say guilty or not guilty," explained Bonnie Schot, one of the jurors jailed for 30 days for contempt of court after they allegedly "wilfully refused" to reach a verdict.

Ms Schot got out of jail after one night in Holloway but the jury system is once again in the dock. After all, no criminal, but any fool, can be a juror. If Ms Schot was as confused as she says she was over this complex case, can we really rely on 12 jurors to be able to reach a true verdict according to the evidence as they are sworn in to do?

Juries have been in existence since the twelfth century to decide the facts in a case proved by the evidence presented by the court and to judge their peers ("who will understand", in the famous words of 1066 and all that).

This may have been fine in the twelfth century when legal processes were fairly informal, but now the increasing complexity of cases is making it more and more difficult for juries. The American poet Robert Frost summed up the jury as "twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer."

Last month the Narey report produced recommendations, which are supported by the Government, to limit trial by jury. Removing the automatic right to jury trial in cases such as theft, handling stolen goods and some sexual offences would result in 18,000 cases being heard by magistrates rather than in Crown Courts, saving millions of pounds.

But the Labour Party has said that, if elected, it will not support any changes to trial by jury. "If a police officer or an MP or even the Secretary of State was charged with an offence of dishonesty, would they not insist on being tried by a jury?" asked Jack Straw. "If that is the case, why should others be denied this right of election?"

A police officer or an MP may well insist on a jury but as a former juror myself I would be highly alarmed at my fate being in the hands of my peers.

I served on two juries last year. At the end of that time I left, convinced that unless jurors were given crash courses in law then the justice system would be better off without them.

These were not complex fraud trials like the Maxwell trial. These was not even infamous libel cases involving awarding compensation (last year the then Master of the Rolls, Sir Thomas Bingham, compared the situation of a jury trying to decide libel compensation as "the position of sheep loosed in an unfenced common, with no shepherd").

My experiences were of a rape case and an actual bodily harm case. But even in these relatively straightforward trials the depth of confusion was staggering.

In the ABH case there was a fair amount of medical evidence. I thought there were several red herrings in the explanations of how the injuries had been caused. Others did not. None of us felt qualified to decide which was factually correct.

Discussions in the canteen showed wide variations on what good character or reasonable doubt actually meant. For one person it had to be photographic evidence of Colonel Mustard in the library with the lead piping; for another a shifty look presaged unassailable guilt. Outside the courtroom memories were confused as to who had said what and when.

More than 10 years ago the Roskill Committee report on fraud trials tried to measure memory, comprehension and concentration of the average fraud trial jury through simulated studies. It produced uncomfortable results. Sample jurors listened to a tape prepared from a transcript of a real trial. When tested afterwards, only four out of 53 had an adequate understanding of it.

Lawyers themselves are firmly in favour of jury trials remaining. "The whole point usually in a trial is a person's honesty or dishonesty," said Roger Ede of the Law Society. "It is an issue that ordinary members of the public are particularly well placed to decide." (But what do lawyers know? They are forbidden to sit on juries. I have!)

In any case, are you really being tried by 12 people from all different walks of life? No official research has taken place on juries in this country because the law prohibits it - although in 1993 a national study of more than 8,000 jurors by Michael Zander, Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, showed that all social classes were represented on juries in proportion to their numbers in the population.

But last year Lord Donaldson, the former Master of the Rolls, said that for complex trials juries do end up becoming composed of people specially selected because they can devote months to jury service. "Inevitably they are those who would not otherwise be more gainfully occupied and who have no pressing commitments in the period of the trial," he said.

Privately many lawyers will admit that there is a preponderance of the unemployed, the retired and housewives while the middle classes will do their utmost to wriggle out of their two-week stint, which does not require much effort - a booked holiday, a hospital appointment, a child.

The problem if you wish to reform the jury system is: what do you replace it with? Well, democracy won't crumble if magistrates (or juries with relevant expertise) take on more trials that are currently judged by juries.

And if not, let us at least have more research into how juries work. We have no idea whether there is a class element in acquittals and convictions. We have no idea if they are working properly at all.

In the meantime, let's make it more difficult for middle-class do-gooders - who praise jury service to the skies but wouldn't be caught dead on one - to get out of it. If they want it to be democratic, let them do their bit of public service. If they complain about perverse juries, let them sit on one.

And if you feel that you can't be bothered, think about being in the dock yourself confronted by 12 strangers. Remember the infamous case of the ouija board jurors who convicted an insurance broker of a double murder after four of them turned to more unconventional means of solving the case.

Actually, in the retrial Stephen Young, 36, was found guilty again. Which, I suppose, could restore your faith in juries. Or, for that matter, in ouija boards.