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Archive for January 13th, 2010

Law Review: No angry men

While it is routine for civil matters to be tried without a jury and for less serious offences to be decided by lay magistrates or a stipendiary magistrate, now styled district judge, the first case for 400 years to be tried by a judge alone  began on Tuesday.  The Independent covered the story in some detail so I will not rehearse the brief facts here, but confine myself to a brief comment and invite discussion: No angry men: first trial without jury begins.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides  that a trial without jury may be held  where there are fears jury tampering would take place, and if measures to protect jurors are inadequate. Last year the Court of Appeal ruled that the £1.75m armed robbery alleged to have been carried out by John Twomey, Peter Blake, Barry Hibberd and Glen Cameron at a warehouse at Heathrow in February 2004  be heard by a judge alone because of the danger of jury tampering. The last trial had to be abandoned over those fears.

The Times noted: “Defence counsel had unsuccessfully tried to appeal to the Supreme Court to challenge the jury-less trial. But, they were told, the justices of Britain’s highest court had no jurisdiction to hear the appeal.”

Trial by jury is enshrined in our constitution and criminal practitioners I have been able to speak to thus far are staunch advocates of the system. I am not a practitioner but raise the thought for discussion that while it places a burden on the judge to both ensure a fair trial compliant with the laws of evidence and take on the responsibility otherwise taken on by twelve men and women,  is it necessarily the case that a jury would do a better job of determining guilt than a lawyer with considerable experience of trials, experienced at analysing factual information and unlikely to be swayed by factors which may prejudice a juror one way or the other?

I did not think it was a particularly good idea, some years back, when the rules were changed to permit practising lawyers and judges to sit on juries, partly through concern that they may dominate discussion in the jury room but partly because of their experience and knowledge of the system.

I can see why there is a need to have an exceptional provision to hold trials in cases of ‘jury nobbling’ – and, inevitably, because I am not a criminal law practitioner my response to  trials without a jury is based on gut instinct and the emotional response that trials should be tried by 12 ‘ordinary men and women’.  Is this emotional response logical? Would it necessarily be a bad thing to remove the need for juries in more serious cases?   I invite discussion and would be particularly interested in hearing the views of lawyers and others who are specialists in criminal law.

To focus discussion on this – should readers wish to comment- I post this as a ‘single issue’ Law review and will post comment on other legal stories of the day separately later today.

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