Tag Archives: juries

On The Law

The law was the one closed shop Mrs Thatcher failed to break. Blame the sheer number of lawyers in Parliament with a vested interest, though I suspect today the average MP is more likely to be a former policy wonk. Not an improvement.

Now my former colleague Michael Gove, who these days is justice secretary, will have a go. He says the law is the preserve of the rich but fails the poor, and that it must become more efficient.

Fair point, the first. Rich oligarchs and corrupt businessmen from the developing world flood to London to settle their disputes in our courts, though given how much they pay to do so, this might better be seen as a lucrative invisible export.

And while on the rich, Gove might have a look at the miscarriage of justice which has seen celebrities dragged through the courts for long-forgotten misdeeds, cleared and still hit with huge legal fees. In the millions. Ditto some journalists. I cannot understand how that can be seen to be fair. It’s a huge, disguised fine levied on the innocent.

Having, as I have written, just done jury service, it is pretty obvious to me that the criminal justice system is as riddled with systematic waste as the NHS, and for very much the same reason. It’s not their money. The procedures that operate in both would not be countenanced in a private company, though that sort of time-wasting and foot-dragging was prevalent enough there forty odd years ago when I joined the workforce.

Sit in the jury box, and you are often met with the bizarre sight of a judge typing away on a laptop while prosecuting and defending counsel rummage through piles of paper. Almost nothing is computerised. There are endless delays as key people fail to turn up. Bits of evidence are repeated over and over again, or are supplied in written form, only to be tortuously read out verbatim in court as well.

Several of my fellow jurors, quite independently, speculated how much of this waste and delay was down to lawyers being paid by the hour. And the hours? Ten to one, a break for lunch, two to four, or before this if convenient.

And don’t even consider the idiocy of men dressed in costumes more appropriate to the 17th century. What message does the wearing of wigs send to the 21st century juror? It does not, trust me, engender respect.

Over to you, Michael.


He Says, She Says

I once sat as a juror, in one of my many spells in the jury box, in what I would describe as a “he says, she says” trial. The facts were simple enough. She said that during an altercation he said something about her which constituted a criminal office. He said he didn’t. That was all, as a jury, we had to go on.

The judge made it clear that we had to reach a conclusion “beyond all reasonable doubt”. This is the criminal burden of conviction. He stressed this several times. It is, plainly, impossible to decide beyond all reasonable doubt whether something was or was not said some months previously, not having been there, and with no recording evidence, CCTV cameras, whatever.

You can only say, he looks like the sort of person who might have done that. She looks a bit shifty. God help us that juries should decide, one way or another, on such a basis.

We acquitted him. The judge then made it clear to us, in not so many words, that the whole thing might be seen as a waste of time, but he couldn’t possibly comment.

A large number of sexual offences are “he says, she says” crimes. This plainly does not apply if there is evidence of injury. If there is not, in many cases the two parties may have emerged from a bedroom, having both entered it willingly, with diametrically opposed accounts of what took place there. This explains, rather than some inherently misogynistic bias to our judicial system, why so few accusations of serious sexual assault make it to the courts, and why so few end in conviction.

Sorry, but that is how it is. Now, suppose the “he says, she says” events had taken place three or four decades ago. How clearly could you testify, in the witness box, over events that happened then? Would anyone seriously suggest such a case should come to court?

In the case I took part in above, and in some more high profile cases recently, there must be a suspicion that the authorities said, rather than take a sensible view let’s wash our hands of this and sling it over to a jury trial. We can’t be blamed for anything that subsequently happens there.

Of Juries, and the Police

There is a computer at Kingston Crown Court that loves me deeply. It is so impressed by my charisma, my intellect, my deep understanding of jurisprudence, that it has selected me for jury duty three times. In less than 40 years.

This is, statistically, out of the ordinary. But it has given me an an usual insight into the working of the jury system.

We learn that, post Hillsborough, post Andrew Mitchell, etc, fewer and fewer people trust the police. This will have an unforeseen effect on the jury system.

The average jury, and I speak as one who knows, is made up of a majority of Sheep and a minority of Wolves. Most people are unable to decide on a matter as important as whether someone is guilty or innocent. We weren’t there. How can we know what really happened?

It is the job of the Wolves to drive the Sheep to the proper conclusion. Most defendants who have made it as far as a jury trial are guilty. The alternative is that they are the victim of some ghastly conspiracy, involving the entire local constabulary. All the police are lying. Or of some weird, unbelievable coincidence.

In many juries, there is the odd Anarchist. Someone who believes that no one is guilty, on ideological grounds. That the police fit people up. They cannot be trusted. Some will be minor criminals themselves, unwilling to convict on the basis of, there but for the grace of God…

If trust in the police ebbs further, the number of Anarchists will grow. The number of majority convictions already reflects those people who will not convict, despite all the evidence. Get beyond a certain percentage, and the jury system becomes unworkable.

Take my advice. If you are guilty, opt for a jury trial. Your odds are better than 50/50.

Not that the jury system does not throw up the odd piece of genuine folk wisdom. As I walked out of one courtroom, a fellow juror turned to me. “He’s just a piece of Sarf London rubbish. I should know. I was married to one.”