‘Clueless’ jury puts justice in the dock

A high profile trial has been thrown out of court after the jury showed it did not understand its role. Should 12 ordinary people be trusted with such important decisions?

Since Norman times, the jury system has been a cornerstone of British justice. The right to be judged innocent or guilty by a group of one’s peers, based on a fair assessment of evidence, is thought to ensure that court decisions are representative of the people, and respect the facts.

But last week juries themselves were on trial, when the hearing of Vicky Pryce, accused of lying to protect her ex-husband, a former MP, was thrown out.

The reason? The 12 citizens charged with finding her innocent or guilty could not reach a verdict. Instead, they deliberated for three days, then presented the judge with ten questions that showed they did not understand their job.

Was it permissible, the jury asked, to ‘speculate’ about what Pryce may have been thinking when she broke the law? Could they consider things that were not ‘mentioned’ in court? And what did ‘reasonable doubt’ mean anyway?

The queries, the judge said, exposed a ‘fundamental deficit in understanding’. Juries are forbidden to ‘speculate’ or consider things from outside court: they must listen only to the evidence shown in the trial. And ‘reasonable doubt’ is the standard proof for any conviction: all jurors must know they are sure about their decision if they find someone guilty.

‘A reasonable doubt is a doubt which is reasonable’ explained the exasperated judge. ‘These are ordinary English words.’ But his clarifications were in vain: when the jury was still unable to come to a verdict, he dismissed the hearing in despair.

Concerns have been raised about juries before. In one 1993 murder trial, the jury reached a guilty verdict by consulting a ouija board. And a 2010 study found one third of jurors were unable to identify the key issues in a trial – although, more positively, they failed to reach a verdict in just 1% of cases.

This has led some to deem the jury system too flawed for continued use – especially in complicated fraud cases, which even experts struggle to understand. But so far, attempts by successive ministers to get rid of juries have failed – partly because the public values them so much.

Ask the everyman

After this shambles, some think that trust seems misplaced. The basic intelligence and common sense needed to sit on a jury seems to be lacking in too many ordinary people, they say: the average individual is just not cut out to make such important decisions.

What a patronising, backward view, others cry. A juror’s job may be tough, but the system depends on the idea of each citizen doing his or her bit to make sure that balanced justice is delivered. If an elite few deemed the rest of us unfit to make decisions about our own society, democracy itself would be fatally undermined.

You Decide

  1. Do you think the jury in Vicky Pryce's case were right to ask the questions they did?
  2. Lord Devlin, a British judge, wrote in 1956 that the jury system is ‘the lamp that shows that freedom lives’. What does this mean, and do you agree?

Activities

  1. Consider the jury’s questions, displayed in the graphic above. Do some research into both this trial and the role of juries more generally, and provide clear answers to the queries, with explanations.
  2. Write a guide to jury duty, including information about the history of the jury, what it is expected to do, and the reasons for its role and responsibilities.

Some People Say...

“I wouldn’t trust a jury with my fate”

What do you think?

Q & A

So can anyone be called up for jury service?
Teenagers won't be asked to sit on a jury. But once you are eighteen and on the electoral register, you could be randomly selected for two weeks’ jury duty. Only those who have a scheduled medical operation or another good reason will be exempt.
And what happens then?
If selected, you'll arrive at the courts and wait for a case. Then, along with eleven others, you will sit in court and hear the evidence for the prosecution and defence, before deliberating in secret with the rest of the jury. In a criminal case, like Pryce's, you'll decide together if you think the defendant is guilty. The process may involve a lot of thought and debate, but experts offer information and guidance, and you don't need any expert legal knowledge!

Word Watch

Hearing of Vicky Pryce
Pryce, a well-known economist, was married to former Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne, when he had an affair. After he left her, she made public an incident in 2003: Huhne had been caught speeding, but to save him from taking the penalty points and losing his licence, Pryce had agreed to say she was behind the wheel. The scandal led Huhne to plead guilty to perverting the course of justice, and he resigned from his post as an MP this month. Pryce now claims she was coerced into taking the points: when the trial reconvenes this week, the new jury will need to judge if she broke the law wilfully, or was forced.
The Judge
The judge in this case was Mr. Justice Sweeney. His role is to preside over the case and, when the jury has decided on an innocent or guilty verdict, to decide what a punishment should be.
Ouija board
A ouija board, or spirit board, is meant to summon to dead. Users mark a board with the letters of the alphabet and numbers one to nine, and place their fingers on a movable piece which is supposedly guided by a spirit in answer to questions. Scientists have largely discredited belief in the spirit workings of the board, and say messages are most likely the product of users subconsciously guiding the pieces themselves.

Subjects

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