There is a great deal of discussion in the media today about the merits or otherwise of trial by jury, following the dismissal of the jury in the Vicky Pryce case. A new trial will take place next week. Vicky Pryce, the ex-wife of ex-Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne, was being tried for perverting the course of justice: it is alleged that she accepted penalty points (for speeding) that ought to have been added to Huhne’s driving licence. Huhne pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice, but Pryce is pleading “marital coercion” in her own defence.
Yesterday, the trial judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, discharged the jury in the light of a series of questions that the jury put to him. For example, the jury 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?” Explaining his decision to discharge the jury, the judge said:
I don’t ever recollect getting to this stage in any trial, even in far more complicated trials than this one, and, after two days of deliberations, a list of questions of this very basic kind illustrating that at least some jurors do not seem to have grasped it … This is not jury misconduct, this is not irregularity, this is a jury which has not, it appears, understood its function.
Of course, it is entirely possible that many of the jurors understood their role perfectly—and that the questions were manifestations of a disagreement between jurors. Nevertheless, the case inevitably places trial by jury under the microscope. Yet much of the discussion of juries in the media today is pretty superficial and poorly informed. You might therefore want to find out more about how juries work in order to arrive at your own, informed view about the merits of the system.
The UK Criminal Law Blog has a series of posts on jury basics, covering topics including what juries do, how juries are selected, how juries decide cases, and whether juries should have to give reasons. At the moment, juries do not have to—and in fact must not—give reasons. An obvious difficulty this poses is that it makes it impossible to ascertain whether a jury has decided a case on the basis of irrelevant matters or faulty reasoning—which, it has been noted, makes it hard to conduct research into the reliability of juries’ verdicts. Against this background, Ben Fitzpatrick, an academic at York Law School, suggests that there are good arguments in favour of requiring juries to give reasoned verdicts. His blog post is well worth reading. Something that particularly struck me was his suggestion that:
the trial involves citizens calling one of their number to account, and asking for an explanation from that individual for their behaviour. It seems to me that a basic duty of reciprocity (as well as the need to retain what Duff refers to as ‘moral standing’), would require those who do the calling to account, to give an account of their own decision-making.
I have argued elsewhere that public authorities should be legally obliged to give reasons for their decisions. It seems to me that at least some of the arguments in favour of public authorities doing so can be applied to juries—not least because juries, when determining criminal liability, are wielding the coercive power of the state in a particularly acute form.
Finally, for a longer read, try this article by Fergal Davis of the University of New South Wales. He argues that trial by jury plays an important political, democratic role: “Public involvement in the process of determining guilt or innocence has the potential to increase transparency and legitimacy in the criminal justice system.” He goes on to say: “In the context of the criminal trial, the body that issues the verdict must represent the population and have a mandate. While a non-jury court may fulfil both criteria, the jury is more likely to appear to have both representative capacity and mandate because of its make-up.”