One of our national vices is to sneer at those who ask basic questions. This in turn creates a general reluctance of people to ask such questions, so as not to risk “looking stupid”. It is better to keep one’s mouth closed and be thought an idiot, we are often told, than to open it and put the matter beyond all doubt.
Yesterday it was revealed that the jury in the trial of Vicky Pryce had asked some straightforward questions of the judge. One or two of the questions seemed very basic indeed. But the jurors were right to ask those questions if there was genuine uncertainty by any one of them. A person facing a serious criminal charge should be glad of a jury which asks such questions of the judge before convicting, rather than one which has the same questions but keeps silent and then convicts beyond reasonable doubt.
We know very little as to why this particular jury asked those questions. It may be that all twelve of the jurors were equally puzzled on each of the queries posed, though this is highly unlikely. It could be that there was just one juror who was not accepting what the others were saying, and so it was decided that the judge would be better placed to give the necessary guidance in simple language and an authoritative tone. Given that the jury was unable to agree even a majority (10-2) verdict, it is probably the case that not each question was posed by all jurors together.
It would have been far better, of course, had the jury had understood all the relevant points to begin with. But the case which was tried (and will be retried next week) is not simple on either its facts or the law. The judge’s directions to the jury were some seventeen pages long. The jurors were charged with finding guilt or innocence in respect of an action many years ago to which there was no other direct witness evidence other than from the defendant and on the basis of substantial circumstantial evidence. And to these facts the jurors were required to apply the rare “marital coercion” defence, the exact scope of which remains unclear even to many lawyers.
Juries are certainly not perfect. Any sentimentality about the wonders of trial by jury can often not survive experience of watching one in action or serving on one. My own anecdote is that I once saw a miscarriage of justice when a prosecutor put an early question in such a pejorative manner that the entire jury seemed at once to turn against the defendant regardless of his answer (the defendant was convicted, but he appealed and was then acquitted).
The real value of juries is in what they prevent others from doing. Without juries in criminal cases, decisions on serious criminal matters would be left entirely to judges. Some may say that would not be a bad thing; but when one’s defence on a serious matter depends on assessments of disputed evidence, it is better to have ten to twelve people convinced before any sanction is imposed rather than just one. And juries act as a brake on any biases judges may develop over time in respect of the credibility or otherwise of, say, police or expert witnesses.
Indeed, the main merits of the British constitution are in respect of what each part stops another part from getting away with. The best argument for the Crown is in respect of the ultimate powers others do not have because of its very existence. The House of Commons can sometimes stop the civil service and ministers getting carried away either in bad law-making or implementation of policy; and the House of Lords can be a check on sloppy legislating by the House of Commons. The Courts can review and quash bad laws and decisions, and Parliament can change the law if the Courts’ decisions are unwelcome. No part of the British polity is really that impressive on its own terms; the value of each component lies primarily in the abuses it stops others committing. Juries are no different.
Some juries are strange, and they may be stranger than we can dare to imagine. Some individual jurors do things so patently weird that one despairs. And some jury verdicts are so perverse that one can only wonder what they are thinking, if they were thinking at all. But like Churchill’s maxim about democracy, juries deciding serious criminal matters are better than the alternatives.
David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman