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The secrecy of the jury room was preserved by the House of Lords in a ruling last week, despite powerful disagreement by Lord Steyn who argued that the principle was not worth 'the occasional miscarriage of justice'.
The Lords were considering two appeals, and one – R v Mirza – concerned a chef from East London who was jailed for four years in 2001. A juror wrote to his barrister claiming bias on the part of members of the jury who accused Mr Mirza of "playing the race card" because he had given evidence through an interpreter where he did not really need one.
Lord Slynn of Hadley upheld the principle contained in Contempt of Court Act 1981, section 8, that no one should be able to inquire into the deliberations of jurors to find out how they reached their decision. "In the first place observance of the basic rule […] is essential to the operation of the jury system as we know it," he said. "If there can be a review of what happens between jurors, whether in the jury box or in the jury room, the advantages relied on as justifying the rule will disappear or fundamentally be diminished. I do not thus find it possible to accept that candour would not be affected." A second argument was that there was "a real risk" that allegations would be made which were "without foundation" but which would "reduce confidence in the jury system", he said.
However, Lord Steyn strongly disagreed. "In my view there are substantial grounds for concluding that the jury reached their verdict on perverse grounds which included a pronounced racial element," he said.
Lord Steyn said that ruling backed the view that "in the interests of maintaining the efficiency of the jury system the risk of occasional miscarriages of justice may acceptably be tolerated". "In other words one must accept some dubious verdicts, even in cases of the utmost gravity, as the cost to be paid for protecting the jury system," he said. "While I acknowledge that the problem is one of acute difficulty, I cannot assent to the austere conclusion."
Angena Bhagwandeen, a solicitor at AB Law who represented Mr Mirza, said that "based on his ruling" they would pursue the case to the European Court of Human Rights. "The decision of the majority upholds the common law principle that the secrecy of jury deliberations is to be preserved at least until after verdict," she said.
"However, they have indicated that there should be some modification of the common law rule, which would have left the courts powerless even where a jury reached its decision by a toss of a coin or by consulting a Ouija board," the solicitor continued. "Under the old rule even that could not be enquired into if it took place in the jury retiring room." She also pointed out that the Law Lords unanimously accepted that the Contempt of Court Act 1981 did not prevent the Court of Appeal from looking at an irregularity in the jury room. "This is an important step forward," she said. "It at least means that jurors who make disclosures such as the disclosure made by the juror in Mr Mirza's case will not be guilty of contempt of court."