What Pryce justice?

The real value of juries.

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

Serious-looking Victorian jurors. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.