BPTC graduate Richard Murtagh recently spent a week shadowing a judge at the Old Bailey. In the third of this week-long series, he recounts his experience. Read part one here.

Today was my third day as an Old Bailey marshal.

I’m forming a rapport with court staff and security. We trade banter at the entrance and in the corridors. It’s surprising how fast a sense of routine kicks in – even at a place whose regular business is murder. Speaking of which…

I arrived expecting to sit on a murder trial. I was disappointed to find that the trial was concluded nine days earlier; all that remained was for the jury to return its verdict. However, I needn’t have worried. This turned out to be the most tense, interesting and insightful part of the week. To be honest, these events took place over three full days, slotted between other matters. But for continuity’s sake, I’m packing it all into Wednesday.

The judge began by explaining the case history and allowing me to read the notes from his summing-up. The defendant stood accused of killing another man. The options for the jury were murder, manslaughter or “not guilty.” Murder requires proof of intent to kill or cause really serious injury. Manslaughter is the default option where such intent is missing.

The judge told me about a note sent by the jury two days ago. It indicated that the 12 jurors had reached a deadlock: “not guilty” was unlikely at this point, but so was a unanimous verdict. The judge feared having to declare a hung jury, which would mean having to retry the case at great cost to the taxpayer.

Richard Murtagh
Richard Murtagh

The jury bailiff informed the judge that another note was available. The judge read the note in open court, with the defendant and counsel present. It confirmed there was no movement on the voting numbers, nor was there likely to be. After submissions from counsel, the 12 jurors were called into court. The judge directed that a verdict of 11–1 was now acceptable.

Hours passed. A further note was received. No progress had been made, nor was any likely. In court, the judge directed that 10–2 was now acceptable. Eventually, a final note stressed that the jurors were unlikely to reach agreement at all.

In chambers, the judge explained the dilemma. Clearly, the jury did not believe this defendant to be innocent and was split between murder and manslaughter. No juror was willing to budge. In such a case, a judge may withdraw murder from the jury, leaving manslaughter as the only option. But this is risky. For example, what if a stubborn majority favour murder and refuse to convict on the lesser charge – somehow believing this to be “giving in” to the minority view? In that event, the judge will have forced a hung jury. On the other hand, it seemed from the jury’s notes in this case that a hung jury was inevitable.

Fortunately, prosecuting counsel made an application to withdraw murder from the jury, thus sparing His Honour such a difficult decision. A unanimous verdict on manslaughter was then returned within minutes. The trial was over.

On leaving for the day, I had to pass by the Jury Room. I noticed the door open and the bailiff tidying up. At a glance, I saw reams of notepaper littering the table, wastepaper bins brimming over and photographs pinned to walls. Undoubtedly, this room had played host to some intense debate.

So, today I bore witness to the diligence of British jurors. I also came to appreciate the subtle demands upon every trial judge. Aspiring barristers wishing to do the same should apply through their Inn. Aspiring solicitors could write to the Court Manager direct.

More tomorrow, when I’ll get to see part of a terrorism trial. Read Thursday’s article here.