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Thursday, 21 February 2013

Is the jury out on jury trial?

Two high profile cases have brought Juries into the news over the last few days.

I have never sat on a jury. Up until a few years ago lawyers were banned from jury service because it was feared that they might exert some influence. That was changed a few years ago and I know a few people including a judge who have been summonsed. I’m sure it would be fascinating to see the workings of the courts from a different angle. I await the call and will be read to go.

The first of the two well known cases has been the trial of Vicky Pryce in the Chris Huhne penalty points case –

Her jury were discharged after failing to reach a verdict and she now faces a retrial –

It has been suggested that the jury were somehow at fault because they failed to grasp ‘the basics of their task.’ This could add ammunition to those who would like to see that system abolished with cases tried by judges alone. This would be a big mistake. Whilst we cannot comment on this particular case pending a retrial, a jury has to do its best to reach a verdict based on the facts. We have a person’s liberty at stake here and if they are not able to reach a verdict then so be it. Whilst a retrial involves more cost it is still the fairest system for getting to the facts of a case. Hundreds of cases are tried in this way and there will always be cases where they cannot agree. That does not mean that the system itself is at fault.

We have had jury trials for hundreds of years and a person’s right to be tried by a group of ordinary citizens is one that we should defend to the end – even if there are occasional inconveniences.

The other case concerns Oscar Pistorius who is accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. He will not be tried by a jury. The system was abolished in South Africa during the apartheid years. As there were only ‘white’ juries there was no certainly that a black defendant would get a fair trial –

So the familiar reporting restrictions will not apply as a judge will not be expected to be influenced in the way that a jury would. In this country that would be anomalous as a judge can now sit on a jury!

It will be interesting to see how the two cases compare.

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