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.)

Getty
Show Hide image

How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.