April 22, 2019


As part of Law and Public Sector Week, one of our GSM law lecturers, Gillian Palmer, has kindly written this piece on being a juror. Many thanks to you Gillian.

Many of our students look forward to the criminal law module.  This is “real” law, where counsel wear wigs and strut their wit and erudition (metaphorically of course.  This is England!) in front of an awe struck jury.

My Equity and Trusts students will know that Her Majesty has required my presence at Woolwich Crown Court these past weeks and possibly until Christmas.  I am Juror 1 in Court 12 where a six handed immigration fraud is being tried.

We Court 12 jurors have our own room, snug according to some, claustrophobic  and noisy in the mind of others. In court, windows are not for opening.    I do not think I am disrespecting section 8(1) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 when I reveal that we now have a fine poinsettia on our table surrounded by mountains of sweets, biscuits and cakes.

Or didn’t you know a jury marches on its stomach?  We live for our elevenses’ break and our tea time ten minutes.  And as for the “luncheon adjournment” as the good folk of Belmarsh charmingly call dinner time –  Well!  Maybe I would be in contempt of court if I revealed just how Court 12 regales itself during this precious hour.

On my long and winding journey between court and home (two buses, much waiting many school children eating noisome fast food), I fall to musing on whether I, accused of some hideous and complicated crime, I would prefer to be tried by twelve of my fellow countrymen, or by a judge alone. What would you prefer?  My answer is “Give me a judge anytime!”

Section 44 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 gives a judge the power to order a no-jury trial where “there is evidence of a real and present danger that jury tampering would take place” and where any steps taken to prevent it, such as police protection for jurors, would not be effective. The power is used sparingly; the  Menzies warehouse robbers at Heathrow airport is the only instance of which I know.

So called “Diplock” courts – a single judge sitting without  a jury – were introduced into  Northern Ireland during the troubles in 1973 for some offences.  The last trial under a Diplock court in the Province was last year in 2012.

Lord Devlin referred to trial by jury as “the lamp which shows that freedom lives”.  I’m not so sure. He never sat on a jury.  Members of the  legal profession have only been allowed onto juries since  2004, when the Criminal Justice Act 2003 ended the “middle class opt-out”.

I wouldn’t want open heart surgery to be done on me by my fellow jurors, lovely though they are.  I wouldn’t want my conveyancing done by twelve people chosen at random off the electoral roll.  Criminal law is difficult.  That’s why we teach it, along with E&T, at the end of the course.

You criminal lawyers will instantly counter “But juries are to decide matters of fact.  Law is for the judge.” It was not always thus.  In mediaeval times, jurors had a more inquisitorial role.  They went out and investigated alleged offences.  That sounds a lot more fun, but these days we have the Metropolitan police and the CPS.

I don’t want to be tried by a judge alone because  I believe juries won’t understand.  I want to be tried by a hardened professional. Judges live the life day in day out, year in year out.  A courtroom is home.  Not for us, the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, plucked from our homes and offices and supermarket tills and installed in this alien place with these alien rituals.

As a juror, I feel like a nursery school child.   I must sit when I am told, and   go to the loo when bid.  I am deemed not to be able to read. I may be given papers to hold so as to get me used to the idea of the printed word, but I must have it read out to me.    The  usher makes us line up outside the court in the order we sit on the jury benches.  Many is the time when the nice teacher – sorry Crown Court judge – says “We don’t need to trouble the jury with the next part, so  you can go and have some juice and biscuits.”  And then a nice lady called Alison  takes us to our special room again.

I exaggerate of course.  But in  order   to highlight  a  serious point.  Being a toddler when you’re a grown up, taken from our well trodden paths and much cherished prejudices is surprisingly stressful.  I come home from court and feel exhausted.  Stress is the enemy of fair and rational decisions.  The primal brain kicks in.  Prejudices and predilections crowd out a reasoned response.

So that’s why I’d prefer my guilt decided by a professional judge.  And not just because it would be quicker.  Judges are used to seeing people in the dock and are less likely to conclude that they are guilty on the basis of their  skin colour hunchback  or dodgy dress sense.  The very act of putting Defendants inside a glass cage underlines  their guilt, their otherness.  Surround them with guys in uniform and you wonder why we bother having a trial.

Still, the (on-going) experience of being a juror  is a fascinating one.  When  the trial ends in the new year, and we  twelve are restored to our old haunts, I will have a new experience of one of the most precious institutions of a democratic state: trial by jury.

A recent book The Jury and Democracy: How Jury Deliberation Promotes Civic Engagement and Political Participation argues that serving on a jury can trigger changes in how citizens view themselves, their peers, and their government–and can even significantly increase electoral turnout among infrequent voters. Jury service also sparks long-term shifts in media use, political action, and community involvement.

The book draws on voluminous research carried out by the four authors.  I’m not convinced.  You’ll find me in the gym trying to rid myself of  the pounds I am putting on from my daily biscuit diet.

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