Editorial: Shining a light on juries

Well, that appeared to be the view of the House of Lords last week in R v Mirza (see Law Zone newswire 245).

In a powerful dissenting judgment Lord Steyn asked what justification there was “in logic, common sense and fairness” for not allowing evidence about jury deliberations in establishing whether the verdict was the result of a fundamentally tainted process. The Law Lord took issue with the prevailing view of his fellow Lords that, as he put it, “… one must accept some dubious verdicts, even in cases of the utmost gravity, as the cost to be paid for protecting the jury system.” Ministers appear to have been listening, as it was revealed last week that the Department for Constitutional Affairs would be publishing a consultation paper in the spring to consider allowing research to be conducted on the deliberations of jurors.

If jury sceptics wanted any more ammunition last week, they didn’t have to look very far. It was revealed that a woman juror had sent a bottle of champagne and a flirtatious note to the prosecuting counsel Richard Latham QC at the end of a fraud trial. “What does a lady need to do to attract your attention?” she is reported to have asked the silk. What indeed, and lawyers for the defendants were quick off the mark to cite the woman’s approach as an extra ground of appeal.

Every now and again reports of juror madness surface calling into question the sanctity of the jury room as enshrined in the Contempt Court of Act 1981, section 8. Most infamously, there was the 1994 murder trial where members of the jury in “a drunken experiment” sought spiritual guidance, via ouija board, from the victims themselves. And then there are the more routine but equally troubling reports of the prejudice that it is suggested infect some juries. There was the case of Sajid Qureshi, who had been found guilty of arson (CA Crim. 23 July 2001). In that case a female member of the jury alleged racist remarks about the defendant were made by jurors throughout the trial in October 2000. She also complained that one juror had fallen asleep in court and another was deaf and unable to hear the evidence. In Mirza, Lord Steyn was persuaded of “a pronounced racial element” in some of the jurors’ deliberations.

Such horror stories make a compelling case to shine a little light on that most opaque of processes. Nonetheless, given the clamor to reform jury trial out of existence from some quarters, there is reason to suspect that any new research might be seized upon as a politically convenient excuse to attack juries. Intriguingly, last week a ground-breaking research was published in the form of a Home Office-commissioned study. It interviewed 361 jurors (although not about any juror’s discussions) and revealed that “43 per cent failed to fully grasp what was going on”. Pretty disturbing, you might think? Apparently not, as a researcher pointed out: “They might not have understood every bit of terminology. [but] most jurors felt they followed pretty well what was going on.”