Power to the people

South Korea has just held its first jury trial,Japan is planning to reinstate juries next year, Russ

I would always be more comfortable living in a society that had some sort of jury system than in one that did not. A country where criminal justice is entirely under the control of central government, administered by professional judges salaried by the state, can never be wholly trusted. News that South Korea has just held its first jury trial, that Japan is planning to reinstate juries next year, that Russia is experimenting and even China is toying with the idea is therefore very cheering.

In Britain, attempts by successive governments to curtail the scope of juries, chiefly so as to cut the cost of Crown Court trials, have largely been seen off. We may have a blurred idea of what British citizenship entails these days. But the knowledge that ordinary folk play the key role in our courtrooms when it comes to serious criminal matters is still a defining source of self-confidence - at least as important as being able to vote.

Democracy takes many forms. But look around the world and you see that the best systems ensure that there is participation by ordinary citizens in the application of the criminal law. Juries, or versions of them, signal a stable civic society, where there is trust between the governed and the governors. The absence of such participation, for example in the juryless Diplock courts that dealt with terrorist offences in Northern Ireland, signals the opposite.

In experimenting with the jury system, South Korea, Japan and Russia show a desire to give their democracies a further stamp of legitimacy. Even if it is intended only as a bit of PR to woo the west, the people may latch on to it and grasp it to their bosoms. Hooray.

But as for China going down this route, the idea seems wholly implausible so long as the bulk of alleged offences are dealt with in secret, often involve political rather than criminal charges and lead, in thousands of cases, to a bullet in the back of the neck. The whole point of juries is to provide a bulwark against such abuses by the overmighty state. As Lord Devlin said in his famous 1956 Hamlyn Lectures, one of the first objects of any tyrant in Britain would be to "overthrow or diminish trial by jury, for no tyrant could afford to leave a subject's freedom in the hands of 12 of his countrymen".

My own belief in the jury system comes from sitting as a juror. Crazy though it may seem to let the outcome of a trial be decided by a group of untrained, often ill-educated, sometimes prejudiced members of the public, my observation is that they almost invariably rise to the occasion and almost always get it right. When ordinary people are given an extraordinary responsibility, the civic gene kicks in to help them.

As South Korea may discover, the jury system is not just an admirably transparent way of upholding the rule of law. It is also, as de Tocqueville observed, "a peerless teacher of citizenship". Which is exactly why China will be slow to follow suit. Trevor Grove is the author of "The Juryman's Tale" (Bloomsbury)

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything