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21 February 2000

A tale of the power of ordinary folk

We do not need fewer juries but more, arguesBarbara Gunnell(lately on jury service)

By Barbara Gunnell

A few weeks ago, at a school in east London, the Prime Minister again raised the spectre of the “forces of conservatism”. This time, they were at large in the House of Lords which had just defeated a government bill removing the right to trial by jury from around 18,000 defendants a year.

According to Tony Blair: “This is about modernising the criminal justice system. It’s about ensuring it is rebalanced in favour of victims and witnesses as well as defendants.”

The debate between the forces of conservatism and the government has tended to concentrate – reasonably enough – on issues of justice for the defendant and projected cost-savings of £100 million. Yet of equal importance is the contribution a strong jury system makes to civil society. Juries are a rare example of active citizenship and of exercising responsibilities and duties as well as rights – things dear to Blair and his progressive Home Secretary.

Three days after the Lords debate, I reported for jury service at one of London’s crown courts. The experience convinced me that we need more juries, not fewer. Almost everyone who has done jury service will tell you that it is an important educational experience; how cheering it is to see the diligence with which citizens undertake their responsibilities and their surprise at how determined everyone in the jury room is to administer justice fairly. My view, formed over two weeks, was that they generally succeed, and that if trials by jury have a higher acquittal rate (40 per cent compared with 25 per cent in magistrates’ courts), this is because the Crown Prosecution Service has failed to prove guilt.

Details of cases are picked over and over. Nothing is taken for granted. Every prejudice is challenged. As in real life, there are loudmouths and bullies. But unlike in the pub or the boardroom or the canteen, barracking and haranguing is not effective because the need to strive for unanimity makes even the quietest dissenter powerful. Agreement has to be argued for.

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Being on a jury is many people’s only experience of active citizenship, and of having a genuinely important role to play in society. For law-abiding citizens, it is a better way of learning how the police do their jobs than by watching The Bill (“Aren’t they polite?” remarked one surprised inner-city dweller after listening to a tape-recorded interview) and, importantly, seeing how hard it is for the police to do their jobs.

Increasingly accustomed to being dispensable at work and exercising no power at all as voters, few of us have much experience outside family life of being asked our views on matters of importance. When you are a member of a jury, articulate and expensively educated barristers and judges earnestly seek your opinion.

There could be improvements. I was one of about 150 jurors at the particular court I attended, each serving around two weeks. Their randomness was compromised because it is quite easy to be excused from jury service, and middle-class people appear more adept at finding excuses. Jack Straw would not have found my particular intake woolly or liberal, and none to my knowledge lived in Hampstead. However, people elect to be tried by juries because they believe they will get a fairer hearing from a group of their peers than they would from a magistrate with whom they are likely to feel they have nothing in common. They trust the jury system to come up with the right answer.

Trust being in short supply in modern Britain, we should surely be building on this. We should be using juries to make decisions in more areas of public life. They could replace government inspectors at public planning hearings, for example, and in many other quasi-judicial roles. Maybe randomly selected citizens should replace the network of the “great and good” who currently sit on quangos throughout the land. Juries could decide on film classification and censorship and deal with broadcasting and advertising complaints. They might command greater respect than the current BBC Board of Governors. And random selection from the electoral roll would seem at least as good a way of selecting a proportion of members for the Upper House as any so far discussed.

On the Monday after the Lords vote, an advertisement appeared in the newspapers from Lord Justice (Robin) Auld seeking views on the criminal courts from any individuals or organisations who had dealings with them. Confusingly, given that the Prime Minister says that he now intends to press ahead with the same bill in the Lower House, the range of things on which Auld – appointed only last December – specifically sought views included “the structure and organisation of, and distribution of work between, courts [and] their composition, including the use of juries and of lay and stipendiary magistrates” – the very area sewn up by the proposed bill.

It seems a little late to ask. But it does provide another opportunity for the Union of Woolly Liberals and Forces of Conservatism. This time we should go for broke. Juries for everything.

Written submissions, “preferably before March 2000”, to Lord Justice Auld by mail to the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London WC2A 2LL; fax: 020-7936 6804; or e-mail: crimcourtsreview@lcdhq.gsi.gov.uk

The writer is director of the think-tank Catalyst