The jury system is considered by some as the only way an individual who stands accused of a criminal offence can be properly and fairly tried. In the words of Lord Denning:
Twelve persons selected at random are likely to be a cross-section of the people as a whole, and thus represent the views of the common man.
It will be argued that such a view is one which is reasonable and therefore just.
Some individuals who stand accused of an either-way offence may elect trial by jury over trial by magistrates. Perhaps the reasoning behind this is that an accused would rather be tried by a random selection of society, as opposed to magistrates who are selected from a considerably narrower social pool. Similarly, another reason could be that a panel of jurors is larger than a bench of magistrates, meaning that the prosecution have to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt to a larger number of people. Thus, an accused may have a greater chance of acquittal if tried by jury. For whatever the reason a defendant elects trial by his peers, trial by jury is considered by many as a cornerstone of a democratic society.
However, whilst the jury may indeed represent the ‘views of the common man’, sometimes jurors are called upon to answer questions which are outside the remit of the common man’s knowledge or experience. Other times, jurors may lack the insight and understanding of the trial process which is expected of the ‘common man’. It is in these instances where the role of the jury is questioned and often undermined.
The most recent case in which the institution of the jury has come under fire was in the context of the trial of Vicky Pryce, the former wife of ex-minister Chris Huhne. The trial related to speeding points which Ms Pryce took for her ex-husband ten years previously. Jurors’ questions to the presiding judge caused spectators to have genuine concern as to the role and effectiveness of the jury in its current format. One such question was:
Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it, either from the prosecution or defence?
The Pryce saga is not the only instance where the role of a jury in legal proceedings has been questioned. Indeed, it was a jury that decided that the Yorkshire Ripper’s wife was entitled to £600,000 in damages in respect of a libel suit against Private Eye, the popular satirical and current affairs magazine. This decision caused outrage to many and raised legitimate questions as to whether juries should be instrumental in deciding quantum in such cases.
Aside from the problems jurors may have in understanding legal concepts, difficulties can also arise as a result of the length of time that a small minority of trials can take. The obvious example here is a complicated fraud trial. In such trials, the evidence presented may relate to a series of complex financial transactions that require lengthy explanation. In some trials, juries are required to consider copious volumes of documentary exhibits. In other contexts, relatively recent developments in investigatory techniques and the law of evidence can conspire to produce criminal trials of considerable length. Trials of such length can raise difficulties for juries with existing responsibilities and workloads. Whilst jury service is a public responsibility, such jurors may feel understandably hesitant about being embroiled in a trial of epic proportions. This creates a potential danger inherent in a jury pool comprised predominantly of those whose lives do not involve such responsibilities. Questions can be asked as to their ability to deliver fair verdicts in complex cases.
If an individual is not to be tried by a random selection of 12 individuals from society, then who should he be tried by? One alternative could be a ‘professional jury’ consisting of individuals who have been professionally trained to serve on juries and adequately understand the legal concepts raised by a trial and answer the questions of fact relevant in the determination of guilt or innocence.
Another alternative may be for the tribunal of fact in Crown Court trials to be a specially trained state-appointed representative or single judge. However, these alternatives fail to have the independence from the state and judiciary which the traditional jury has. A professional jury would not be a random cross-section of society: it would be a selection from a small pool of professionals trained for a specific purpose. A state-appointed jury would lack the impartiality which a lay jury theoretically has.
The jury system is an essential safeguard to individual freedoms and ensures that crucial decision-making over the guilt or innocence of individual subjects is conducted by their peers rather than by state-appointees.
Juries are a safeguard and need to be maintained, but there are valid arguments for reconsideration of the process in certain specific contexts — for example, in complicated fraud trials. However, such trials make up only a small proportion of the Crown Court’s workload. Perhaps a more viable alternative is to provide jurors with adequate training before trial, and for both Counsel and judges to ensure that their language throughout the trial is as clear and as lacking in legalese as possible.