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16 May 2013

Corker Binning partner comments in The Times about the jury system

Partner Robert Brown comments on the jury system and sums up the majority view: “People see judges as part of the elite and have the view that if you are tried by your peers, you are more likely to get a fair trial.”

Internet access puts jurors at risk

This week a leading QC predicted the demise of the jury system. Louis Blom-Cooper, QC, said that looked at by outcomes, the system worked well: there was little difference in conviction rates between lay juries and professional tribunals. Why, then, change it? “It works,” he said.

But looking at how juries reach their verdicts was another matter. They gave no reasons; and as a result there was no proper appeals system, he said. And the jury “negates” the role of the judge. “Politically, there is no reason to change it. But that’s not to say it will remain. I think in ten to 20 years it will go, because the economy will demand it.”

Sir Louis was addressing a fundraising evening for Justice, the human rights group, hosted by Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws and sponsored by Cloth Fair Chambers. The audience watched a screening of the classic, 12 Angry Men, in which Henry Fonda plays a lone juror in favour of acquitting the defendant who by force of argument wins round
the rest. Sir Louis was less successful.

Robert Brown, of Corker Binning, who defended Vicky Pryce, summed up the majority view: “People see judges as part of the elite and have the view that if you are tried by your peers, you are more likely to get a fair trial.” If there were proposals to scrap it in ten years’ time, he hoped that people “would stand up and demand to keep it”.

But if the jury is seen as a key part of the democratic system that gives people a stake in how the courts work, is it in good health? This week new research found jurors are badly in need of guidance in their crucial role. It found widespread ignorance about use of the internet or how to deliberate their verdicts, creating a “perfect storm” for committing contempt of court.

Nearly one on four jurors is confused about what he or she is allowed to do, with some jurors researching the judge and lawyers online, others visiting the crime scene on Google Earth or Street View or looking up legal terms.

Some also blog or share their experiences on sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and two thirds were unaware of recent high-profile prosecutions of jurors for such behaviour. Jurors are also unclear about how to go about their deliberations and would like guidance on such things as choosing a foreman or what to do if things go wrong.

The findings, published in this week’s Criminal Law Review, is the first in a four-part project on juries in England and Wales and come after several cases in which jurors have been discharged or trials abandoned because of internet use. Cheryl Thomas, professor of judicial studies at University College London’s Faculty of Laws, who conducted the research, said that it showed “that the vast majority of jurors understand and follow the rules on how jurors can use new media during trial but the message is not getting through and is confusing to a significant minority of jurors”.

“Ensuring that trial by jury can effectively operate in the new media age requires empirical evidence about what jurors do, what they think and what are the best tools to provide them with to do their job to the best of their ability.”

Of 23 per cent who did not understand the rules on internet use, 16 per cent thought that they could not use the internet at all, even to check their e-mails. Five per cent thought there were no restrictions at all and a further 2 per cent believed they could research material on the case as long as it did not influence their judgment.

Some 84 per cent used the internet for personal e-mails; 50 per cent for information about the court; 19 per cent for information on jury service; 7 per cent to look up the judge and lawyers; 6 per cent for legal terms. A small proportion admitted sharing their experiences online: 3 per cent to using social networking sites and 1 per cent to blogging
or chatting on line.

All this, Thomas said, puts them at risk of contempt. Those at greatest risk were the 1 per cent who looked up information about the cases, 6 per cent who looked up legal terms and the 1 per cent who visited the crime scene on Google Earth or similar. Looking up information about the lawyers and judge (7 per cent) would not necessarily result in contempt but might not “be completely desirable”.

But the strongest finding was the need for more information: 82 per cent wanted help with conducting their deliberations, especially on what to do if confused about a legal issue or if something went wrong (a juror introducing material not before the court).They also wanted guidance on how to ensure no juror was pressured into a verdict; how to start deliberations, ensure everyone could express a view and how long to deliberate. When given, judges’ written directions were helpful and all would have liked them. As for potential nobbling, jurors would report this; but 14 per cent would not report fellow jurors introducing material from the internet.

Most jurors know what they are doing, it seems. But a significant minority are confused. All, though, need to be given better tools to do their job — if Thomas’s “perfect storm” is not to break.

Frances Gibb
Published at 12:01AM, May 16 2013