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15 June 2011

The jury system on trial

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By Sangeeta Bedi

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Having worked in the criminal courts on and off since the late 1980s, I recently had my first opportunity to assess the system from the perspective of the jury box when I was summoned to attend a London Crown Court to fulfil my civic duty. Was my faith in trial by jury going to be confirmed or would the experience suggest that jurors decide cases based on prejudice or what they have read on the internet?

Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the bulk of the fortnight was spent in the jury canteen rather than in court.  I sat on a number of trials, none of which lasted more than two days and all of which were concerned with theft of some description. My lasting impression of my co-jurors is that they performed their task conscientiously and fairly. They were interested in the evidence and particularly enjoyed the spectacle of combat by cross-examination. It was refreshing that when we retired to deliberate, the jurors were anxious to give the defendant a fair hearing, construing every doubt in their favour.  More often than not, thinking that the defence case was absurd, I found myself arguing the case for the prosecution – an interesting and unexpected turn of events!  In fact I remember someone dismissing my argument partly because I sounded like a lawyer.

Some jurors thought they had special knowledge of the facts or a particular personality trait which made him (always a he) the logical choice of foreman. One volunteer foreman made his leadership claim on the basis that he knew a policeman who had worked on the Gary Glitter case. But everyone wanted to express their opinion and no one was left out.

It was interesting that many jurors did not appear to understand the judge’s comments about adverse inferences arising out of the accused’s silence during police questioning or what weight to attach to their testimony having been told that the case should be judged upon whether the prosecution had proved their case. In relation to the former, the general reaction was that the accused was sensible to follow the advice of their solicitor at the police station even if that meant saying nothing, and in relation to the latter, that it was not significant because it was not prosecution evidence.

The trial judges were courteous and fair to all concerned but one judge was definitely unnerved by a question from a juror – yes, it was me – about waiver of LPP.

My experience taught me one thing which I had not expected – the extent to which people called up to do jury service believe that it’s an opportunity for them to express their rights as citizens and do something important for society. As a mechanism for fostering social cohesion across all parts of our community, jury service is a small but effective one.

But did the experience change my view of the system? My verdict was that whilst it may have imperfections it nonetheless works very well, and that my belief in the superiority of trial by jury over judge-alone trials remains intact.

Corker Binning is a law firm specialising in fraud and criminal work of all kinds.  For more information call us on 020 7353 6000 or go to www.corkerbinning.com.

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