My jury, right or wrong

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

If the Government wants to win support for its deplorable proposals to limit the right to trial by jury, it could do worse than to exploit the example set by the inmates of the Big Brother house.

How would you like it, the public could be asked, if the situation were reversed? If, instead of you voting on whether to evict a Big Brother housemate, it was up to the 12 of them to decide whether you should be kept inside or released into the community? Are you happy with a system that means justice could rest in the hands of a juror such as Jade, the young contestant who has been ridiculed for her ignorance of everything from what asparagus is for, to which country East Anglia is in.

Of course, it is true that juries do include people whom one wouldn’t choose to sit next to on a bus. But if we seriously want to live in a free and democratic society, it is right that justice be decided by 12 good (ish) and (half) true Jades, PJs, Tims and Kates, with all their human imperfections, rather than by one well-educated and high-minded judge.

For now, let us leave the lawyers to argue over the finer points of the Government’s proposals (to be published in a White Paper this week), and whether they will lead to more or fewer convictions and miscarriages of justice. What should be of most concern to the rest of us is the broad sentiment behind these plans, and all of the other recent reforms and reviews of the justice system. They betray contempt for our integrity and autonomy as citizens, and an attempt to shift the relationship between the individual and state institutions further in favour of the State.

The Government’s attitude shouts from the draft White Paper leaked at the weekend. Try this breathtakingly arrogant statement: ‘There are too many cases where tactical manoeuvres designed to secure acquittals mean the right verdict is not reached, and that is simply not good enough.’

It seems that our longstanding jury system is ‘simply not good enough’ for the Home Office, because it too often fails to deliver ‘the right verdict’ -which can only mean, of course, a verdict of guilty. Gullible jurors, duped by slippery defence lawyers, are supposedly betraying justice. All that is missing from this familiar B-movie script is the avenging hero to right the system’s wrongs. Enter Mr Blunkett and the judges.

The Government and the senior judiciary might be fighting a turf war over some issues, but they appear to share the same dim view of juries. Remember, for example, the Appeal Court judges who overturned a libel award to the former Liverpool footballer Bruce Grobbelaar, on the unprecedented grounds that the jurors’ verdict was ‘perverse’ -that is, m’luds simply disagreed with it. Or the judge who halted the first trial of the Leeds footballers over an assault on an Asian youth, because he thought malleable jurors might have been unduly influenced by a single article in a Sunday tabloid.

Plans to amend the ‘double jeopardy’ rule, and allow people to be tried twice for the same offence, should be seen in the same broad context. It is not simply about being ‘unfair’ to the accused. The double jeopardy rule, as the Law Commission noted last year, ‘represents an enduring and resounding acknowledgement by the State that it respects the principle of limited government and the liberty of the subject’. That did not, of course, stop the Law Commission recommending ditching the rule for murder cases. The Home Office -as ignorant as Jade of ‘the principle of limited government’ -now wants to go further and allow retrials for any ‘grave offence’.

The Government will insist that its reforms are all about better protecting those whom it likes to call ‘ordinary people’. The leaked White Paper says it aims to ‘put the victims … at the heart of the system’. The legal authorities like the idea of people as objects, victims to whom things happen and on whose behalf the State can act. They are far less comfortable with the view of people as subjects, acting independently to shape events -as jurors can.

Juries have a proud record of returning ‘perverse’ verdicts that politicians and judges might not like. A jury must be entitled to make decisions according to its conscience, even if that occasionally contradicts the law as it stands. To say that juries should be tampered with because they don’t return the ‘right’ verdict is similar to arguing that democracy should be restricted because some exercise their right to vote for the ‘wrong’ parties. That attitude, I submit, really is perverse.

My jury, right or wrong.

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Topics Politics


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