Who’s to blame if a jury does not understand its function?

There has been much said and written over the past few days about the jury in the trial of Vicky Pryce, ex-wife of former Lib Dem Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne, charged with perverting the course of justice.

School students take on the roles of barristers

School students take on the roles of barristers in the Bar National Mock Trial Competition

The jury has been discharged on the basis that they would not be able to come to a majority verdict.

In particular, much attention has been paid to the fact that the jury presented the judge with a list of 10 questions which Mr. Justice Sweeney said belied ‘absolutely fundamental deficits in understanding’.

The publication of these questions, the dismissal of the jury, and the resultant need for a re-trial has left some so worried that the public might lose faith in our longstanding and cherished jury system that they felt the need to defend it – despite that fact that such cases are extraordinarily rare.

This case has also led to some rather sneering mockery in the media concerning the apparent ignorance of the jurors and elementary nature of their questions. However, although some of the questions appear to be straightforward, appearances can sometimes be deceiving.

Take the much ridiculed question, ‘Can you define what is reasonable doubt?’ – to which the judge (rather unhelpfully, I think) responded ‘doubt that is reasonable’, adding ‘[t]hese are ordinary English words’. Surely the thinking behind this question, though, was that, when asked to shoulder the immense responsibility associated with judging the guilt or innocence of a fellow citizen, it is quite difficult to put your finger on exactly what ‘reasonable’ amounts to.

It is not so much that the jury didn’t know what the word meant, and more that they quite accurately perceived that ‘reasonable’ is a somewhat ambiguous term at the best of times, imbued with the idea of fittingness and good judgement. It was exercising this good judgement that the members of the jury in the Vicky Pryce case were having difficulty with.

Replacing the term ‘reasonable doubt’ with the word ‘sure’ is simply to elide all of these genuine complexities, because to be ‘sure’ about something is presumably to be comfortable that all of the remaining doubts (because doubts will remain) on the matter are not ‘reasonable’.

The more general point that this case reveals is the profundity of the juror’s role in our society. Not many things are as serious as deciding the guilt or innocence of a fellow citizen, with the possibility that they may lose their liberty, and the range and number of questions from the jury in the Vicky Pryce case, however elementary, highlight that they were keenly aware of this seriousness.

But given that we all recognise the importance of the office of juror and all adult citizens are potential occupiers of this office, we don’t spend anywhere near enough time thinking about how best to ensure that citizens – particularly young citizens – have the knowledge, skills and confidence needed to engage fully with our legal institutions.

It is our commitment to ensuring that all citizens have this knowledge that motivates the Citizenship Foundation’s work on legal literacy. Whether it be through the Lawyers in Schools programme or the mock trial competitions, one of which actually introduces young people to a jury trial, the Citizenship Foundation is determined that young people have access to the legal knowledge and understanding that they need to grow up in to be active and effective citizens.

If – for whatever reason – they don’t have this knowledge, we will only have ourselves to blame.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

One thought on “Who’s to blame if a jury does not understand its function?

  1. Pingback: Jury Trial- Vicky Pryce « AS/A Level Law at The Bulmershe School

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