After a series of eyebrow raising not guilty verdicts over recent years is it not time to consider expanding the qualifications of jurors to include general and, perhaps, specific competences?
During a case in the not too distant past the flame haired defendant was actually found not guilty of something which she had previously and openly admitted to in public, on television and to a parliamentary select committee. Although, on this occasion, it may not have been entirely the fault of the jury it is an outcome that defies rational explanation.
Of course, the current qualification rules include a number of conditions that would disqualify a person from becoming a juror and one of those does refer to ‘a capacity to understand’, but this is something left to the judge and one might imagine that the lack of capacity would need to be very obvious and indefensible for a disqualification to occur on this basis. Such examples would include not speaking English, being deaf or blind etc. However, not being capable of understanding the nature of the offence yet being asked to judge it is quite ok under English law.
Currently almost everyone may serve on a jury and the weaknesses of such loose though conceptually egalitarian selection criteria seems to often lead to erroneous not guilty verdicts through misunderstanding, lack of concentration and focus and by no means least, a sincere and desperate desire after eight months of deliberate procrastination to ‘get the hell out of here’.
A step forward might well be an expansion of the concept of competence in qualifying potential jurors which may be set at different levels depending upon the technical nature of the trial. Firstly though let us consider how we might improve the lot of jurors who can be trapped in what must seem like an everlasting black hole. Businesses, careers and family all balance precariously whilst the legal creatures fill their pockets with enormous amounts of dosh and the poor old jury suffer a rigid and minimal compensation scheme.
Trial length probably correlates quite well with the wealth of the defendants or their backers. It is rarely the state that benefits from lengthy trials. For example were you or I to be charged with, let’s say, conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office, we would probably see our trials done and dusted in an afternoon but, throw huge amounts of cash at it and ‘hey presto’ this thing can be dragged out forever. Duration coupled with obfuscation creates ever more confusion and uncertainty in the captive jurors mind and increases the likelihood that the increased smoke created will more and more obscure the heart of the issues at hand. It is quite likely that conviction rates decline as trial length increases. Trial length then isn’t about fundamental complexities or fairness or even completeness but all about deep pockets.
So what does this tell us about justice and fairness; perhaps, not too much? Espousing the wide and generally egalitarian methodology for jury participation sounds like the very epiphany of inclusivity and fairness but asking people who do not understand the basic concepts about which the trial is concerned is the exact opposite of that and will simply lead to more incomprehensible acquittals. If you have enough money your chances of getting off, even against cast iron evidence, is significantly increased. So is there a way of:
- Encouraging shorter trials of appropriate duration as opposed to a length that improves the likelihood of a desired outcome?
- Selecting jurors with the appropriate intellectual software and knowledge?
- Compensating jurors much more appropriately by considering their skills and the affect on their lives as a whole?
Of course there is, but it isn’t in the interests of the chosen few so I suspect little will ever happen.
Beginning with No 3 on the above list I suggest a levy to be introduced and to be paid by the defence for trials going beyond a pre-defined period. For trials shorter than that there could be a combination of contributors from the defence and the state and for short trials compensation by the state alone. Number two is the easiest and would require the establishment of a national jury council populated by citizens who would be subject to a range of assessments to determine capability and suitability.
Number 3 and number 2 might well aid the objectives of number 1.
Our justice system is out of date but difficult to change. The status quo largely underpins and funds the beneficiaries of the status quo and purports to bring justice by default. That is to say our legal system doesn’t have justice as its core objective, it actually doesn’t care. It has process as its core objective with the inbuilt assumption that justice will out if the process is rigidly adhered to. The fact that it often doesn’t work out like that is of no consequence to the industry. The rules are there, we followed the rules and the outcome matters not. Getting the right result has no importance, only doing stuff the prescribed way matters. Naturally, process is important as well but some of them could be improved and one group of them does involve the suitability of the jurors.
Many of you who have sat on a jury will have experienced woeful examples of conceptual misunderstanding from some of your participating colleagues from confusing doubt of any kind with reasonable doubt to not understanding or correctly recollecting what has actually been said.
Perhaps it is time to re-visit these aspects of our justice system to see if our modern day sensibilities, technology and understandings could improve the accuracy of verdicts to the benefit of us all.