Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Trial by jury on trial

The jury considering whether Ms Vicky Pryce, ex-wife of convict Chris Huhne, broke the law by taking speeding points rightfully due to her then husband, has been discharged without returning a verdict. Ms Pryce will have another trial starting first thing Monday next week.

The judge said that the the jury had shown a "fundamental deficit in understanding" of its role in the trial process. They had sent him a list of questions such as "define reasonable doubt" and "if she promised to obey her husband at her wedding would that get her off?" Or words to that effect.

It seems the luck of the draw produced a very dim bunch of jurors for this trial. Better luck next time.

Time was not just anyone could be a juror. You had to be over 21 years old (now 18 is the minimum) and a property owner. Indeed some courts in the middle ages struggled to empanel a jury because there were not enough men in the area with enough property to qualify. Generally the more serious the crime the more important the jurors had to be.

But modern egalitarianism allows just about anyone on the electoral register onto a jury - although clergy, judges, MPs, soldiers and the insane are ineligible and others may be barred for various reasons. The net effect of this has been to lower the social standing of the typical juror and shift the balance of power in the court room towards the judge. Over the centuries juries have become spectators in the trial process. In times past they carried out their own interrogations and investigations. They still have powers which they never use because they do not know about them, such as the power to return special verdicts not in the list provided by the judge.

Sometimes it is mooted that jurors should have some hoops to jump through: an IQ and education test maybe. But the problem is most people called do not actually want to serve; it's two weeks out of their lives they would rather have back, thus they would fail the test deliberately.

So we have the current unsatisfactory system of trial by the dim-witted. Perhaps we could put the hurdle at the electoral registration stage - you have to pass an IQ/education/numeracy/literacy test to get on the register, but the downside of being on the register is you may have to serve as a juror.

No comments: