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Justice or blind trust? The Jury system considered.

Charlotte Rowles

By Charlotte Rowles on 01/08/14

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Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done. Gordon Hewart, Ist Viscount Hewart   Case of Rex v. Sussex Justices, 9 Nov.


Personal and professional experience

For years, I have been fascinated by the jury system, sitting in courts and trying to understand a little about what happens behind closed doors. 
It was an obsession that l honed over years by volunteering with victims at court, shadowing a criminal barrister and later working as a trainee probation officer.  

During my involvement with Inside Justice over the years and reading prisoners’ letters, I’ve heard about the concerns of those behind bars. Comments about the jury system ranged from observations that jurors didn’t pay attention, how quickly they reached a verdict to views such as the “jurors were malleable and suggestible”. 

Years later, I put my interest to work on a Channel 4 TV series which looked at justice at a grass roots level. We followed offenders from arrest to sentence via police interviews and ultimately to the Magistrates who passed sentence. 

The Judge’s Jury Experiment

So I was intrigued to read recently about a Judge who came up an experiment. The juries were each put together by the 12 foremen, who were invited to take part. 

This mock trial echoed the authenticity we had hoped for in our TV series but this time it was about juries. Former Labour home secretary, Alan Johnson, agreed it would be an interesting experiment and was persuaded to play the part of the armed robber standing trial. At the end of the process most juries found the defendant guilty but crucially, not all of them came to that view. In this experiment they were able to decide on a sentence they considered appropriate, which is the duty of the judge. 

The event which was overseen by Judge Mettyear, who sits on the Sentencing Guidelines Council, makes no claim to be scientific, though it did inform many of the participants about the vital work of jurors and criminal justice system.  Alan Johnson told Inside Justice “I’m sure that if this (experiment) was done more scientifically it would have exposed serious flaws in the jury system”. 

It’s interesting that it was the judge himself who initiated the experiment on the jury system.  At the conclusion of the mock trial, Judge Mettyear told the Sunday Times “I think there needs to be more research into juries’ verdicts”. 

However, critics maintain that section 8 the Contempt of Court Act, effectively forbids anyone to “obtain, disclose or solicit any particulars of statements made, opinions expressed, arguments advanced, or votes cast by members of a jury in the course of their deliberation”, making it difficult for research to be conducted.

Research on juries

Professor Cheryl Thomas, of Judicial Studies at University College London agrees research is complex but not impossible.  She told Inside Justice that she has been conducting research on juries in UK Courts for the last 10 years. In 2010 Professor Thomas published findings from her 2 years of researching juries called ‘Are Juries Fair’. Commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, she looked at racial discrimination against ethnic minorities defendants.  The study found little evidence of jury unfairness. 

Lorraine Hope, Professor of Applied Cognitive Psychology at the University of Portsmouth has been examining the psychological processes underlying decision -making by juries for 15 years.  She says “There just isn’t the political will to permit, facilitate, fund or conduct research on the jury system. Until there is disquiet among the ranks of the judiciary, legal professionals, government and human rights agencies, it is unlikely things will change.  The present system allows no transparency into the validity, or otherwise, of decisions made by juries."

When jurors get it wrong 

In the absence of jurors speaking out, we rely on the press reporting cases of problems within the jury system. 

One standout example of this is the recent troubled trial of Vicky Pryce, on trial for perjury in connection with speeding fines for her former husband, ex- politician Chris Huhne. 

After hearing the evidence, the jury returned with a list of questions for the Judge.

Jurors asked: 

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 jurors’ questions prompted Mr Justice Sweeny to say they had suffered an “absolute fundamental deficits in understanding” and he discharged the jury. 

Problems in the Pryce case became obvious, thankfully. However, the secret ballot approach also leaves open the very real possibility that juries reach decisions on entirely the wrong premise, which will never be discovered and never questioned. 

Juries and miscarriages of justice

Inside Justice receives letters from prisoners and their family and friends- frequently desperate our help and advice. Families and prisoners often complain that a jury handed down a majority verdict just before a major sporting event was about to begin or on the eve of a national TV event.  In three of the cases we have progressed the most; juries reached majority verdicts on a Friday afternoon. 

In 2001, the well respected Lord Justice Auld conducted a study called the Review of Criminal Courts of England and Wales.  One of the review’s main proposals was that juries should be asked to explain their decisions, but this proposal was never implemented. 

However, despite suggestions to improve the system from high- ranking legal figures and senior researchers, the largely- secret world of the jury system is set to continue. 

Stephen Gilchrist was the solicitor in the notorious murder trial in 1990’s where jurors claimed to have been told by Ouija board reach a guilty verdict.  The case shone a spotlight on the real threat to justice that the secretive world of juries can be.  

Stephen told Inside Justice “There are miscarriages of justice and vital research into jurors could help prevent them. I think this is really important”.