Does the jury system work?

This piece was contributed by Dr Adam Gearey, a Reader in the School of Law.

Does the discharge of the jury in the Pryce trial suggest that this most ancient of common law institutions has come to the end of the road? The trial judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, was certainly scathing about the failure of the members of the jury to understand basic points of evidence and their role in the trial. It also seems the press are ready to stick the boot in; fulminating against overpaid lawyers who defend the jury trial as a way of justifying fat fees. The point is that we have to take a sober look at these issues, and not listen to the rantings of the gutter press.

The real difficulty is finding an objective way of thinking about the good and bad features of the jury. One way of doing this is by looking at the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR). Using Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the court has been busy developing principles that define a fair trial. Given that these are international human rights standards they offer sound principles for thinking about and assessing the work of the jury.

From the perspective of fair trial rights, the jury is – at first regard- deeply problematic. It is a fundamental principle of a fair trial that a decision maker gives reasons for his/her decision. It should then be clear how the law and facts have been interpreted. If the decision maker is wrong, then there may be grounds for an appeal. The jury does not give reasons for its decision.

Does this mean that the jury is fundamentally flawed? This conclusion would be a mistake. A fair trial involves checks and balances. What the Pryce trial shows is that the trial judge himself was able to give jurors directions and guidance- and- when it became clear that the jury was unable to reach a sensible decision, was able to bring the trial to an end.

“Ah”- say the journalists of the gutter press- “the Pryce trial shows that courts are costly and inefficient”; a line of reasoning that always leads to the same kind of conclusion: human rights keep criminals out of prison; stop ‘us’ deporting immigrants etc etc etc.

Step back and think this through.

Whilst the jury is not perfect it is central to the integrity of the criminal trial. Faith in the jury is faith in our fellow citizens to argue about matters and come to a reasonable conclusion. That the jury is also consistent with European human rights law and measures up to an international benchmark is also worth stressing. Jury deliberations may be hidden from scrutiny – a safeguard necessary to allow full and frank discussion of the issues the trial raises- but we should not allow the Pryce trail knock our belief that the jury is central to the criminal trial.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the Pryce trial shows that the safeguards do work; and that, to the chagrin of the journalists, lawyers are doing their jobs and that – despite some problems – the jury is an integral part of the criminal trial.

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