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The verdict’s in: in most cases the jury system works well

BBC Radio London’s Vanessa Feltz asked Mark Spragg, a white collar crime solicitor at Keystone Law, to review the effectiveness of the jury system in the UK following the announcement of a retrial for Vicky Price

BBC: How unusual is this situation or do you think it happens much more often and we just do not normally get to hear about it?

MS: No I think this is very usual. One has to bear in mind that there are hundreds of juries sitting up and down the country every day of the week and ordinarily these sorts of problems just do not arise.

BBC: So do we have any idea why this particular jury should be so bewildered, dazed, dazzled and confused that they did not know what the hell they were trying to do?

MS: I think one of the difficulties is that no one can know, no one is entitled to know what goes on in the jury room. That is totally between the 12 people and at no stage must they tell anybody on the outside what their deliberations were about and how they came to a verdict. It is quite different, of course, from the American system where jurors are obviously encouraged to speak out after the trial. But I think here, the problem has been that one only gets a clue as to what is going on in their minds by the questions that they raise.

BBC: Yes. I mean, how normal is it for the jury to send questions out to the Judge in this way?

MS: Well it is not unusual for jurors to pose questions to the Judge and generally speaking that shows that they are interested in the case, they understand it and want to have certain points clarified. But in this case the unusual point is the basic nature of the questions that they were sending out to the Judge. It did seem to suggest that they had no idea what was going on and what their job was, which is pretty disappointing because in that particular trial there was a very experienced High Court Judge, a very experienced prosecutor and a very experienced defence barrister, and between them, it is their job to ensure that the jury understand everything that is going on. That is why I think the jury system is very, very good and should stay; generally speaking the jury do understand what is going on, and they do reach a proper considered decision.

BBC: I mean there is a description of the jury in the Daily Mail and I am just going to read some of it, so people get the picture. Then people might wonder why is the Daily Mail describing the jury’s physical appearance in this way. Many people might wonder that, but nevertheless it is here and this is what it says: “Eight women, four men and not much of a clue. Of the eight women and four men on the Vicky Price jury, only two were white, the rest appeared to be Afro-Caribbean or Asian origin. At least twice the court finished 30 minutes early because a jury member had “a religious observance to keep”. Despite the visibly different backgrounds none of the 12 appeared to struggle with the English language while reading the oath at the beginning of the trial at the Southwark Crown Court. However, inability to understand written English is not a bar to serving on a jury. The 200,000 people a year called for jury service received letters printed in eight languages to encourage non English speakers. It was noted during the Price case that many of the jurors were dressed casually. None of the men wore a shirt and tie. The woman selected by the jury to be their foreman was well-dressed, but she was in the minority and it was she who eventually passed a note to the Judge saying the jury were highly unlikely to be reaching a verdict. The words “highly unlikely” were underlined twice.” I think people might be surprised to know that the ability to understand written English is not a requirement.

MS: Well we are a multicultural society and the jurors are picked from names on the electoral register and that is the system we have and that is what we have to accept.

BBC: But what about if a trial has documents in it or pages of books or pages of accounts or pages of, I don’t know, diaries or anything that is written in English?

MS: Well I think it is then open to the jury to send a note to the Judge to say that one or more of the members of the jury cannot read the page, can it be translated or can it be read over to them if they understand spoken English. And all of these documents you see will have been referred to during the trial. Many of them will have been read out in full. I do not think there is going to be a case where the jury are asked to read volumes of documents that they have not been referred to, that have not been explained to them, and that have not been given in evidence. So they really should have heard it spoken and they should understand what it is about.

BBC: One of the papers is asking the question this morning: “Do we need IQ tests for juries?” I mean I suppose the reason they are asking that question is the fact that the jury asked the Judge can you define what is “reasonable doubt” and the Judge replied “A reasonable doubt is a doubt which is reasonable. These are ordinary English words but the law does not allow me to help you with beyond the written directions that I have already given” the implication being that these people have not got the smarts or the IQ or perspicacity to understand what reasonable doubt means. So should there be an IQ test for jury members?

MS: Well I can understand the problem and why people are annoyed about this and of course, a lot of public money has been wasted and that cannot be given back, it cannot be taken from the jury. But no, there cannot be any qualification requirement for jurors because otherwise you might as well do away with the entire system. There cannot be qualifications on their IQ or their background or their religion or anything like that. That would be a fundamental swipe at the system and if you are going to do that then the only way to do it is to abolish the jury system which I think would be a very unwise thing for this country to do.

BBC: And why would it be unwise?

MS: Because generally speaking the jury do understand the issues and they are the best people to consider the evidence and the problem is if you have a professional jury of judges or trained people they will apply the law to the situation which is not the job they have to do. That is the judge’s job to explain what the law is and all the jury are there to do is to decide on the evidence. And the oath, you mentioned the oath they take earlier: the oath is to try the case in accordance with the evidence and that is the evidence given in the trial.

BBC: Which makes it even more dazzlingly mindboggling that this particular jury asked is it okay to judge the case based on no evidence at all being presented, no facts and something that has not been mentioned in court at all? Mark Spragg thank you very much indeed for explaining to us. So my question for you this morning, does the jury system work?

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This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.

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