This essay will evaluate the argument for and against the jury system, discuss and evaluate proposed or recent reforms to the jury system in England and Wales. Finally, it will consider the alternatives to the current jury system. For over one thousand years the jury system has been in place in the legal system, which to some can seem bizarre to ask twelves random people with no training or experience in this field to decide someone else’s fate. At first the use of the jury was providing local knowledge and acting more like witnesses rather than the decision makers that they are seen as today.
They are now independent assessors of deciding fact. One advantage of trial by jury is public confidence. A jury is considered by most as one of the fundamentals of a democratic society and the right to be tried by our peers has been supported by many renowned judges. There are also new qualifications for jury service enabling almost everyone a chance to serve on a jury and creating a cross section of society.
The use of a jury is very old and still takes place in society today showing that it must be a fair way to judge the accused and that society must have confidence in the jury system. Another significant factor in the advantages of having a jury is jury equity. The vast majority of people who are selected for jury service are not legal experts and have no previous case knowledge, they do not have to follow previous cases or acts of parliament when deciding whether or not a person is guilty.
A further advantage of jury equity is not having to give a reason for the verdict that they have reached. This was put into place when Edward Bushell appealed against his treatment as a juror and he won the right for the jury to be able to come to their own decision even if the judge does not agree (Bushell’s case 1670). Thirdly, the jury system is seen to be an open system of justice, meaning that a jury makes the legal system more open.
This is because members of society are taking part in a vital role which makes the process public. A positive result of having lay people in court is that the law will be kept much clearer because the majority of things said will have to be clearly explained to the jury and it also gives the defendant a chance to understand the case too. Conversely, the jury deliberate in private and do not have to give any reasons as to why they have come to their decision, suggesting that the legal system is not fully open, unlike judges who have to explain their reasoning for a judgement they have made and if they make any mistakes it is then known by others and can be appealed against. A final point of advantages of juries is impartiality. A jury should always be impartial due to the way that they are selected. The process of the jury being selected is random and should create a cross section of society where the people all have different backgrounds and views resulting in any biases being cancelled out. Having discussed the advantages of having a jury, it is important to also discuss the limitations too.
A disadvantage of a jury would be perverse decisions. Earlier in the essay when discussing the advantages of a jury, jury equity was spoke about. However, this can also be seen as a disadvantage because to some it is unjustified and perverse. An example of this would be the case R v Randle and Pottle (1991). Where the defendants were charged with helping a spy escape from prison however this did not come about until it had been wrote about in a book twenty five years later. The jury acquitted the defendants and it was thought that they did that because of the length of time it had been since the offence and the time of the prosecution. Although secrecy can be seen as an advantage to safeguard jurors from stresses of others, it can be considered a disadvantage too. The reason for this is because all of the deliberating is completed privately there is no way of anybody knowing if the jury did in fact fully understand the case. There is also no way of knowing if the jury have come to the verdict that they have chosen for all of the correct reasons.
Bias is also another disadvantage although some people might think that a jury cannot be biased because there are twelve people however there can still be prejudice which can then affect the verdict. An example would be that some people are biased towards the police which is why people with specific criminal convictions are disqualified from sitting on a jury. Another example would be Sander v United Kingdom (2000) one juror had written a letter to the judge explaining that some of the other jurors had been making racist remarks. The judge then asked the jury to ‘search their consciences’ and the next day he received two letters, one signed by all of the jurors stating that there had been no racist remarks and the second letter from only one juror explaining that he had been the person making the racist jokes. Despite all of the letters and the case was allowed to continue with the same jury. However, the European Court of Human Rights held that under those circumstances the judge should have discharged the jury because there was a potential risk of racial bias.
Each of the advantages and disadvantages make an important contribution to our understanding of our jury system and whether or not they are the best way to try defendants but despite all of the disadvantages with the jury system it is still used today which suggests that they must be an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Despite the criticisms of having a jury the popularity of them remains largely undiminished and the best process available. Nevertheless, there could be some other alternatives to having a jury. One would be trial by a single judge, this method is mainly used in civil court cases it is also known for being a fairer, more predictable result. Even so, there is not much public confidence in the use of a trial by single judge to decide serious criminal cases. This is because judges can become case hardened and prosecution minded.
They are also known to be from very elite backgrounds and would not have much understanding of defendants and their backgrounds. Another option would be a panel of judges just like in other European countries where three to five judges sit on a panel together. It seems like a better idea having a panel of judges rather than a single judge as the different views would balance out but the fact still remains that they can be case hardened, prosecution minded and come from an elite background. Having a panel of judges would be very expensive compared to a jury where they are not paid. In Scandinavian countries they have a system where a judge sits with two lay people. This does seem like it would be a good idea as the judge could provide legal expertise and the lay people offer a better view of society than the judge as it has already been established that judges are not a cross section of society, they are much more elite.
There have been many reforms and proposals of reforms within the jury system. Some of the reforms are being drawn up to try and cut the costs of court cases as it could save around thirty million pounds per year. ‘Juries in minor theft cases, assaults, burglaries, some drug offences, criminal damage cases and some driving cases will be scrapped under the reforms, The Times reported’. It seems there is a need for some reforms to be made on the current system for it to cope with modern crimes by keeping justice updated.
Overall, having trial by jury for a numerous amount of years suggests that it is successful and must be sensible to keep it. Granting there are other alternatives that have been recommended to the jury system there have not been any better options as of yet to decide the fate of defendants. It seems likely that trial by jury is more of an advantage to the public than a disadvantage as explained earlier that the public would rather be tried by regular people rather than those of an elite background, so does this suggest that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? It seems that trial by jury will still continue for many years and will remain to be an asset to society.