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Should we scrap jury trials?
The right, should you be accused of a criminal offence, to be tried by your equals has been a cornerstone of the criminal justice system in this country for hundreds of years, and rightly so. Though jury trials are essential to a properly functioning criminal justice system, some worry about the quality of justice provided by those on jury duty, alongside worries about diversity and cohesion. I shall endeavour to prove that these worries are unsubstantiated, and certainly do not outweigh the fundamental importance of the jury system.
To enable oneself to answer this question, it is important to ask another: what is criminal justice about? Criminal justice is about state and society setting, and indeed enforcing, rules of conduct. Jury trials are a good way to ensure that society is involved in the administration of justice. Some aspects of criminal justice, such as the determination of ‘reasonableness’, must be applied by society in order for them to be fair – they must fit with our normal understanding of the term, and of acceptable behaviour. To determine what our ‘normal’ understanding is, it is surely a good idea to ask jurors, as ‘normal’ people, how they understand the term. Juries, therefore, act as one of the most democratic aspects of the constitution – they are democracy in action every day of the week, not just once every four years. There is no other part of the constitution that is so open to the public, where ordinary people participate in decisions of such immediate importance and wield real power.
There are always going to be arguments about how desirable a system is which leaves crucial decisions to a small number of ordinary – and therefore possibly stupid, bored or lazy – people. This worry about the engagement of the jury, and resulting worries about the quality of justice, is grossly hyperbolic. It is difficult to know whether worrying about jurors’ intelligence is a genuine concern, or a bit too close to snobbery. Either way, those holding such an opinion should be reminded that the jury only have to determine the facts of the case – it is up to the judge to determine the law, and deal with any legislative ambiguities, for example. Furthermore, the concern that jurors will not pay sufficient attention is unfounded, for two reasons. Firstly, having twelve jurors should serve to combat this issue. If a couple are willing to spend a trial doodling, then they will hopefully at least have the good grace to agree with the conclusion reached by their fellow jurors. Secondly, it is difficult not to take things seriously when you know that you have to go back into the court room and tell the defendant and the victim – or their family – what you have decided. This is likely more significant, and thus pressurising and emotionally charged, for a juror to do, than for a case-hardened judge, lacking the freshness and insights of those who are new to the system.
Another worry is that of representativeness and cohesion. Some worry that the jury is often not representative of society, and therefore should not be able to dispense justice on society’s behalf, due to the possibilities of racial, class, gender, or other bias. The alternative, however, must be considered: leaving the dispensation of justice to the judge. An individual is ipso facto less diverse than a group. Beyond this, judges typically represent a specific fraction of society – their group is made up overwhelmingly of white, middle-class, university-educated men. By scrapping jury trials, we would be trusting one person, whose background may be far less ‘normal’ than a jury’s, to begin the case open-minded, and not to subconsciously make decisions based on prejudice.
In the majority of cases, the ‘twelve angry men’ are in fact a group of people representative of society – certainly more representative than an individual judge – who take their role in the administration of justice very seriously indeed. The right to be tried by jury, most importantly, ensures that a democratic society plays a part in the administration of criminal justice. The basic synthesis of the arguments presented above is, therefore, that we should not scrap jury trials.
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