Lawyers often lament the ban on disclosing the secrets of the jury room provided by the contempt of court legislation.
After all, how can Government ministers dismantle the jury system on the grounds that it does not work without first conducting some decent research as to how marvelously well (or not) 'twelve good men and true' acquit themselves in their wood-panelled rooms? Now it looks as though lawyers might find out for themselves. A new government proposal means that solicitors, barristers and even judges could gain a rather unique perspective on the goings-on behind the jury room door. They will not be reading some worthy research by a legal academic, but experiencing the joys of jury service at first hand according to proposals planned under the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
Last week, the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) released a consultation paper on the commendable theme of making juries "more representative of the public at large" through abolishing those wide categories of people deemed ineligible or excused as of right from sitting as jurors. "Jury service may be an important incident of citizenship, but many in this country don't qualify for this civic privilege and duty," the DCA argues. "And many who do qualify do not regard it as a privilege and do their best to avoid it."
Now lawyers will enjoy the privilege. The paper notes that there are concerns about "the possible effect on the fairness of the trial of allowing lawyers and others involved in the administration of justice to sit on juries".
"The fear is that they might exercise undue influence over their fellow jurors by virtue of their specialist knowledge of the justice system," the DCA said in its proposal. It concludes that such arguments are not sufficiently persuasive and cites as supporting evidence the fact that many US states allow lawyers, and even judges, to serve. It also points out that there are plenty of non-lawyers intimately familiar with the courts here that presently sit without too much of a problem, from law students to civil servants working in the criminal justice system. However, the DCA does make clear there will be pretty obvious circumstances in which it will not be appropriate for a lawyer to serve – for example, where a judge is summoned to the court in which they sit.
Such a reform has to be a good thing. Surely one of the best ways of bolstering a jury system under attack is a review of those automatic exemptions and a tougher approach to jury-dodgers? Having lawyers serving is an effective step in the right direction. It will also go some way to undermining the tabloid caricature of juries being – as a Daily Mail columnist once put it – "overpeopled with the feckless, the grudge-bearing and the unemployed". But it will also be a refreshing and valuable experience for lawyers to view the criminal justice system from a new perspective.