The collapse of the trial of Vicky Pryce, Chris Huhne's ex-wife, for perverting the course of justice and helping him escape a speeding conviction, has caused quite a stir. The fact that the judge dismissed the jury because they didn't seem to understand what they were doing and couldn't reach a valid verdict has led, sure as eggs are eggs, for calls to scrap the jury system altogether.
The Daily Mail, that beacon of intelligent debate on the most serious issues, leapt into the fray with a report that “Two thirds of jurors do not understand a judge’s legal direction, research has revealed”. It said that jurors frequently used the internet to research trials, despite warnings not to do so because of the risk of miscarriages of justice. Former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, called for further research into the system of trial by jury.
There has been widespread ridicule and abuse for the jury, with suggestions that they were “thick” and ill-educated. Few newspapers commented that there were only two white faces among the twelve, the rest being black or asian, but this does seem to have been a fact.
That is not to suggest that black or asian people are thick or ill-educated – far from it. Just take a look at the ten questions they handed to the judge ...
1. You have defined the defence of marital coercion and also explained what does not fall within the definition by way of examples. Please expand upon the definition, specifically "was will overborne". Provide examples of what may fall within the defence, and does this defence require violence or physical threats?
2. In the scenario where the defendant may be guilty but there is not enough evidence provided by the prosecution at the material time of when she signed [the penalty notice letter] to feel sure beyond reasonable doubt, what should the verdict be: not guilty or unable/unsafe to provide a verdict?
3. If there is debatable evidence supporting the prosecution's case, can inferences be drawn to arrive at a verdict? If so, inferences/speculation on the full evidence or only where you have directed us to do so, eg circumstantial evidence, lies, failure by Vicky Pryce to mention facts to the police.
4. Can you define what is reasonable doubt?
5. 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?
6. Can we infer anything from the fact that the defence did not bring witnesses from the time of the offence such as au pair, neighbours?
7. Does the defendant have an obligation to present a defence?
8. Can we speculate about the events at the time that Vicky Pryce signed the form, or what was in her mind at that time?
9. Your honour, the jury are considering the facts provided but have continued to ask the questions raised by the police. Given the case has come to court without answers to the police's questions, please advise on which facts in the bundle the jury shall consider to determine a not guilty or guilty verdict.
10. Would religious conviction be a good enough reason for a wife feeling that she had no choice, ie she promised to obey her husband in her wedding vows and he had ordered her to do something and she felt she had to obey?
Are these stupid questions? Well, no, they're not – far from it. They're written in good English, clearly phrased, explicit and betraying careful thought. And their content is not the result of poor understanding either – there are some sophisticated concepts being expressed here. To be honest, if the GOS were on trial he wouldn't mind having this jury – at least he'd know they'd thought carefully about his case.
No, the only fault that can be laid at this jury's door is that they tried too hard. They didn't understand that their job was just to weigh up the evidence as it had been presented by prosecution and defence, and decide which had done so most compellingly. No, they thought they were supposed to judge Vicky Pryce, to determine her intentions criminal or otherwise, to decide whether she deserved to be punished or not. And that's what they tried to do. Unfortunately, they were wrong on two counts. Not only was it not their job to judge the accused, but they tried doing it by using common sense, and it's well known that no court of law has the slightest use for anything as mundane as common sense.
Ruth Dudley Edwards, historian, biographer and crime writer, put it rather well in the Telegraph: “We need juries so that the common law can continue to take account of the experience and point of view of the common man or woman. Sure, where there are problems of tribalism or racism, juries may show bias. But by and large the United Kingdom's judicial system works well.
It's worth bearing this in mind when we read that Mr Justice Sweeney, the judge presiding over the Vicky Price trial, was astonished by some of the questions that the jury asked him regarding the case, which he thought showed that at least some jurors had "a fundamental deficit in understanding".
I’ve done jury service twice with an interval of a couple of decades and came away with my belief in the system strengthened. The first time went more smoothly, because there were no culture clashes. The second time, to put it delicately, there was a bit of a problem with a juror who appeared to think no co-religionist of hers could ever be guilty of anything, so we had to go for a majority verdict. But what impressed me on both occasions was how anxious most people were to be fair and how civil the discussion was.
I think his lordship is showing a fundamental deficit in understanding what happens when a random, disparate group try to grapple with unfamiliar circumstances and concepts. My guess is that in the Pryce case the majority had a bit of a problem with a minority who indeed may have been baffled by the way the law operates. If you’ve failed over several hours to explain what seems obvious to you and incomprehensible to some, is it so odd that you would ask the judge to clarify? Hence a question as basic as "Can you define what is reasonable doubt?" And if you’ve been explaining fruitlessly over and over again that a juror can’t take into account evidence not presented in court, isn’t it sensible to ask the judge to spell that out authoritatively?
What should we learn from this? Well, for a start, all jurors should be required to have an excellent grasp of English. Secondly, they should be given FAQs, with the answers translated into human-speak, not presented in legalese. Thirdly, the judiciary should grasp that some jurors are thick, some are ignorant and some are prejudiced, that it can be tough in a jury room and that what no lawyers should do is sneer at the citizens who are doing their best in an unfamiliar world. And fourthly, they should be required to watch “Twelve Angry Men” as they wait to be called.
I would also make it almost impossible for anyone to get out of jury service. We should all be in this together.”
The GOS knows some people who have been jurors three or even four times. He has never been called, and wonders why this is? Is it because he lives in the country, and most jurors are called from the towns?
Yes, he knows it's probably boring and frustrating and most people don't want to do it, but he would have liked to have a go just once in his life. He's intelligent, articulate, has no difficulty understanding other people, can follow complex arguments and can usually overcome his prejudices. At seventy years of age, his only requirement is that he can go to loo every 90 minutes or so. Unfortunately, because he is seventy he is no longer eligible. He is deeply resentful at being permanently deprived of the opportunity to do this particular civic duty.
He does wonder if the problem is that most court cases are long and very, very boring, so that the jurors have difficulty maintaining concentration and are really not that interested? There is, of course, an easy answer. Just televise the trials, and get the audience to vote on the verdict.
You could have Bruce Forsyth as MC, and some dense bimbo with big tits to flirt with him and do short, snappy interviews with the accused ...
”Now, Wayne, how do you think it's going? Were you surprised when the prosecuting counsel said you'd robbed fifteen banks in ten days and netted a haul of £900,000?”
“Well, yeah, I were a bit sick, like, 'cos I only made it £650,000 so I'm wonderin', like, where the filth 'ave stashed all the rest? D'yer reckon I can gerrit back, like, at the end?”
“I'm sorry, Wayne, but the judges are now ready with their comments, and after we've heard what they have to say it'll be time for our audience to phone in with their votes. Now remember, audience, you must have the owner's permission to use the telephone, calls will cost a minimum of £1 on a landline and other providers may be much higher. Call 0845 999666 if you want Wayne to receive the death penalty, 0845 999667 if you want his balls to be wired up to the National Grid, 0845 999668 if you think he should be forced to be Chris Huhne's bitch for a fortnight, and 0845 999000 if you think he's completely innocent and gets to take me from behind in the Green Room. Or Brucie, if he'd rather ....”
See? Entertaining, democratic, fascinating and a nice little earner as well. What could possibly be wrong with that?
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