Editorial: Don't blame the jury system for this failure

Is is not truly remarkable that our randomly chosen juries work as well as they do?

Wednesday 20 February 2013 19:54

With every hour and every day that the jury in the trial of Vicky Pryce failed to reach a verdict, the prospect that they would ever agree seemed to recede. On the face of it, the question was simple: was Ms Pryce guilty of perverting the course of justice – by taking speeding points for her then husband, Chris Huhne – or was she to be found not guilty because she was acting under duress? Even after submitting 10 additional questions and being invited to reach a majority verdict, however, the jurors remained so divided that the judge decided to dismiss them. It was with a distinct weariness that the judge said the retrial would begin on Monday.

But he did not dismiss the jury without adding his two ha'pence worth. In 30 years of criminal trials, he said, he did not recall receiving such a very basic list of questions at such a late stage. Such elementary questions, he suggested, raised substantial concern about whether it was safe to permit the jury to continue its deliberations.

In essence, the judge appeared to be blaming the jury for incompetence and hoping for a brighter lot next time around. It is true that some of the questions they asked betray elements of confusion about what they might or might not take into account and a temptation to stray beyond the evidence they had heard. But at least, it might be said, they admitted this in time to be returned to the straight and narrow. It is also true some of their questions might be considered so basic as to cast doubt on whether this jury was capable of pronouncing sensibly on this or any other trial.

To infer from their failure, however, the jury system as such is either counterproductive or doomed would be a conclusion far too far. The matter should rather be addressed the other way round. Is it not truly remarkable that the English jury system works as well as it does?

Jurors are plucked at random from the electoral registers to sit at crown courts up and down the country. Since it became harder to claim an exemption six years ago, the jury room has become one of the few places – with the exception, perhaps, of the GP surgery – where all manner and estates of men and women come together. Almost half a million adults perform jury service every year, from all walks of life, and the social mix is both intentional and necessary. The verdict should reflect the common-sense view that an ordinary person would take, presented with the same evidence.

This is not to say that maintaining the integrity of the system has not become harder, or that there is no jury-nobbling. It may be illegal for jurors to try to research a defendant, or a witness, say, via the internet, or to communicate with the outside world via mobile phone, though judges have – rightly – come down heavily when they find people breaking the rules. Some highly technical cases may also be beyond most juries' ken.

All in all, though, a system in which 12 ordinary men and women judge their fellow citizens on behalf of the rest of us still works well. For all the complaints of the judge at Southwark Crown Court, it might just be that the failure of the jury to agree reflected the complexity of the case and the presence of so much information already in the public domain. And if indeed this jury was at fault, we should give thanks that such demonstrated inadequacy is so rare.

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