Verdict on The Jury

I didn’t watch much of ITV’s prime time drama, The Jury, last week. I was bored after the first episode and decided the other four hours required to see it to the end could be better spent. The reviews were mixed. Some reflected my view that it was unimpressive and unrealistic. Others thought it a good yarn with plenty of human interest and twists and turns to keep the viewer intrigued. It probably didn’t matter as far as ratings are concerned as the British public seems to have something of a love affair with crime and courtroom drama.

I assume the reason for this is that, along with hospital dramas, which also seem to enjoy the same level of fascination, they shed light on situations any of us could find ourselves in but not necessarily all of us will.  I don’t particularly want to ever find myself in a police station or an A&E department but I probably wouldn’t be too annoyed if I get called for jury service (unless it was my birthday or I ended up spending a year of my life in court).

One thing most of the reviewers of The Jury seemed to  agree on though was that it was intended to show how marvellous our jury system is.  Unlike many other aspects of the justice system- the stocks, drowning witches, being hung drawn and quartered – it’s managed to stand the test of time.  Enshrined in the Magna Carta of 1215, trial by jury has been with us since the Vikings introduced an early version.  In fact, the very word ‘law’ is a Viking word, which just goes to show we owe a lot more to Scandinavia than just cheap bacon and cheesy pop songs.

Despite the fact that it’s obviously worked quite well over the subsequent 800 years, there have been attempts to limit its scope.  A proposal by then home secretary Jack Straw in 2000 to abolish the right of more than 18,000 defendants a year to elect for jury trial, on the face of it to cut delays, was killed off in the House of Lords.  In defending the right, Baroness Kennedy said: ‘It removes an important citizen’s right…and the magistrates will be put into the invidious position of having to pick and choose those who should be deemed worthy of the privilege of a jury trial.  It is wrong in principle’.

But where politicians have failed, technology may start to erode the belief that trial by jury is fair and there is a very real danger that jurors will jeopardise trials through misuse of the internet.  In June, Joanne Fraill was the first juror to be convicted for contempt of court for using a social media site after she contacted a defendant on Facebook and revealed details of the jury’s deliberations during a trial.  The cost to the taxpayer of abandoning the case and retrying the defendants was £6m.

It’s probably fair to say that Ms Fraill was rather reckless and most people would recognise that such contact was pretty stupid and risked some form of punishment, even if they weren’t fully aware of the consequences.  However, there are many examples of jurors using the web in ways which they would probably imagine were more helpful than not.  In one, a manslaughter suspect walked free when his trial collapsed because a juror had visited the alleged crime scene, researched the case on the internet and shared his findings with the other jurors.

Jurors are of course told they must not discuss or research the trial while it is in progress, but this is impossible to police.  Lord Macdonald QC, the former director of public prosecutions, believes it should not invalidate a trial if jurors are found to have conducted online research.  Probably a practical response, since a report by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) last February found that 12% of jurors in high-profile cases admitted doing just that.

Others are less sanguine.  In response to Lord MacDonald’s comments, the lord chief justice, the appropriately named Lord Judge, warned that court-based tweeting and misuse of the internet could lead to the end of the jury system.  He called for tougher warnings for jurors over their use of the internet ‘if the jury system is to survive, the misuse of the internet must stop.   I think we must spell this out to [jurors] yet more clearly’.   Certainly if I knew I risked up to two years in prison for typing a defendant’s name into Google I’d stick to online scrabble.

On the other hand, there is not much you can do to prevent potential jurors reading about cases before they come to trial.  Yesterday the process of selecting a jury to try two men for the murder of Stephen Lawrence began at the Old Bailey in London.  The judge told the jury pool from which the twelve would be selected that anyone with any links to the case would be disqualified.  He went on to warn them they must start with a ‘clean slate’ when trying such a ‘notorious’ case.  That’s going to be hard for anyone who remembers the case.

Despite the potential for jurors to be corrupted by scandalous headlines and misinformation it does seem that they do behave with integrity and leave their prejudices at the court door.  The MoJ research found that juries in England and Wales were fair, effective and efficient.  In particular, only 35% of jurors in high-profile cases remembered pre-trial coverage, but only 20% of that group, 7% of the total sample, said they found it difficult to put out of their mind during the case.

The attorney general, Dominic Grieve, takes the view that ‘of course a jury can be trusted not to research a case on the internet as directed’.  I think he’s right.  The jury system is based on trust, trust that twelve people will judge a fellow citizen fairly and on the evidence and the law, and trust that they will not talk about it to others outside the courtroom.  Extending that trust to whether or not they do their own research on the internet seems only right and proper.




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