The English legal system, on which most English language countries based their legal systems, guarantees that defendants accused of a serious crime for which, if found guilty, he could lose his liberty, has a right to trial by a jury of his peers. A debate has raged for generations within the English legal system as whether juries are a good or bad thing in the legal system. There are both advantages and disadvantages to having juries. The use of juries in the English legal system has been curtailed in recent years and now juries are rarely used in the civil system and in the criminal system, a jury trial is only available in serious cases. In the English court system Magistrates courts deal with over 95% of criminal cases.
Many people do not understand what a jury’s role in a court case actually is. A jury is there to find on matters of fact only, jury members are told to use their ordinary judgment to decide, on the facts, whether the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial Judge is there to decide matters of law and direct the court, including the jury, accordingly. They hear the evidence from both prosecution and defence, and must decide only on the facts that they hear in court. Judges warn juries that if they doubt the defendant’s guilt, they must find the defendant not guilty. An accused is innocent until a court finds him guilty. It is not for the defendant to prove his innocence, but for the prosecution to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to the jury system. British politicians would have the public believe that juries make the justice system expensive. This is clearly not so, in England and Wales Magistrates’ courts deal with 95% of all criminal cases, there are no juries in Magistrates courts. Only 5% of criminal cases go to the higher courts. When a criminal case reaches the higher courts if the defendant pleads guilty to the charge of which he is accused, no jury is necessary and in fact only 1 % of criminal cases actually require a jury. Those cases, requiring a jury, are trials on the most serious charges and, being only 1% of the total criminal cases in England and Wales, they are not a great cost in the whole criminal justice system.
Juries are ordinary people and they are independent of the police, judiciary and the establishment. They are there to represent the public and as a bastion of freedom, to redress the balance between the defendant and the might of the state. They also are a barometer of Public opinion, ordinary honest citizens applying local knowledge and values, who for the most part take their civic duty very seriously and do their best. It is important that there is public involvement in the law. Character and honesty are discernible by ordinary people and do not require legally trained people to discover, and it is important that they are there, because those who see criminals and criminal cases can get cynical and jaded, jury members judge. The Public has confidence in the jury system and because it does, the majority of people respect the law.
Many critics believe that juries do not understand the burden of proof, however, the mere fact that juries lower the burden of proof in paedophile and child murder cases show that they understand the burden of proof very well. Many Judges believe that juries generally return the correct verdict and there are very few appeals from jury trials.
Juries make their deliberations protected from outside pressure and influence. Some critics believe that because no one knows how a jury arrived at their decision, there is no assurance that they reached it for the ‘right reasons’, R v Young 1993 ‘The Ouija Board Case’. However, the few cases that occur and the very fact that, in this case and others, a juror was so appalled at the actions of other jury members, that s/he brought to attention, proves that most jury members take their duty seriously and police one another.
Other critics cite the fact that jury members do not have legal knowledge or training, but they denigrate their own argument, since juries find on the facts of the case and must obey the judge on questions of law and the point of juries is that they do not have legal training, but bring their ordinary common sense to the law’s operation. Juries make justice more open and the jury system gives the public a stake in the law and its operation.
Critics also cite that juries acquit more often than a judge sitting alone, however, judges direct juries that they must find the prosecution’s case proven beyond a reasonable doubt, if a jury acquits a particular person, it is because the prosecution did not prove its case. In other words, the fault is not that of the jury system, but of prosecuting counsels.
Juries can of course return verdicts that the government or legal system sees as perverse, such as R V Ponting 1984 where a civil servant leaked information to Member of Parliament, Tam Dyell on the sinking of the Belgrano, a ship sunk by British forces during the Falklands conflict. The information proved that a Government Minister was misleading Parliament. Despite the fact that there was no public interest defence at the time for civil servants, in such a case, and the judge, all but, directed the jury to convict, equating the public interest with the government’s interest, the jury returned a not guilty verdict. The case is one where the jury brought their own common sense to the case and decided accordingly, a court composed of lawyers would have convicted, which in this case would have been unjust and wrong. There certainly was both a public and political interest in the public knowing the true facts and that a government minister was misleading Parliament and a further public interest in the Public knowing that the Government was using the law to try to cover political wrongdoing.
The jury system, in England and Wales has been restricted in recent years. Juries now rarely sit in Civil law cases and only in the most serious criminal cases. It is right that where a person’s liberty is at stake, s/he has the right to trial by jury. As the Ponting case amply demonstrates, the jury system works to avoid injustice and ensures that even the most powerful people are held to account for wrongdoing and prevents the state and the government using the law unjustly. There may be a case for using jury members with specialist knowledge in particularly complicated cases such as convoluted fraud cases, however for the most part twelve ordinary members of the public serve the justice system very well. The jury system acts within the English legal system as one part of the checks and balances within the English constitution to prevent injustice to individual citizens and, by providing the public with a role within the law the jury system ensures that most British people respect the law and believe in the criminal justice system. The jury system has lasted for more than 800 years if it is not broken do not fix it.