The jury trial is often considered to be one of the most controversial elements of the criminal justice system in UK and Wales. Although for many people trial by jury seems to be the fairest and the most unbiased way of establishing the person’s guilt or innocence, the practice shows that this method has many disadvantages and may cause serious concerns in the society. In this small research we shall try to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the jury trial and describe further perspectives of using it in criminal cases.
Trial by jury was first introduced in the 12th century by king Henry II, who set up a system where twelve free independent people assigned to arbitrate the land disputes. Since that time the system has gone through significant changes and was completely formed by the end of the 18th century (Cairns & McLeod, 2002). After the complete establishment of the jury trial it operated without any remarkable changes, but at the end of the 20th century the public attention was drawn again to the problems connected with jury reliability, rationality, experience and bias. The publication of the “Criminal Courts Review” by Lord Justice Auld in 2001 was a crucial argument in the discussions concerning the future of the jury trial. The document proved that the role of the jury trial should be revised and the system must be improved in order to provide fair judgments (Sanders & Young, 2004). This report presented the main drawbacks of the existing trial system – poor ethnic minority representation, lack of experienced jurors who represent different social layers and the game character of the trial process, where the truth is not so important as victory (Davies et al., 2010). The recommendations given in this review were partly brought into life with the adoption of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which altered greatly the jury system in UK and Wales and introduced the following innovations: 1) jury trial was not to be used for certain fraud cases and cases where a danger of jury tampering existed; 2) the jury selection system had to be improved in order to provide more experienced and unbiased people representing different social groups and ethnic minorities (Gibson, 2005).
The statistics show that trial by jury is actually very rare. Slapper and Kelly (2006) state that due to the restrictions imposed on the use of jury trial only 1% of all criminal cases are tried by jurors. But not only these restrictions make the access to jury trial very complicated. The main argument here lies in two most essential disadvantages of the trial by jury – its enormous expensiveness and long periods of time to be held. These problems make the jury trial extremely inconvenient and exhausting both for the defendant and the jurors as they are ordinary people who have to spend lot of their time getting through the court procedures and participating in the trial process. The qualification rules for the jurors are also often criticized. As we know, according to the Juries Act 1974 there are several qualifications for people willing to serve as juries: 1) the person should be registered as a Parliamentary or local government elector; 2) the person should be not less than 18 and not more than 65 years old; 3) the jury should have been ordinarily resident in the UK for a period of at least five years since his or her thirteenth birthday (Davies et al., 2010). As we may see, these qualifications are quite narrow and many of the experts claim that these criteria should be broadened in order to ensure better “quality” of the juries, their better understanding of the trial process and better ability to judge independently. The ineligible persons include past and present members of the judiciary, other people who have been concerned with the administration of justice, the clergy and mentally ill people. The CJA 2003 disqualifies individuals who have served a sentence of penal servitude in the past ten years, have been sentenced to a term of lifetime penal servitude or who have been released on bail pending trial at the time the jury is summoned. As a result, the CJA 2003 removed the disqualifications for individuals employed by the courts, the penal system or the police from being members of a jury (Gibson & Watkins, 2004). But my opinion is that the main problems are caused not by these qualifications, rules or governmental restrictions. No, these problems lie in the human nature and in the fact that the jurors are subject to human errors. Even if selected according to the rules, some of them are well educated and some are not; some are very responsible and some are not, some try to get better understanding of the case and the evidence and some are just trying to return home as soon as possible. And if we want to answer the question whether the trial by jury should be retained, we must carefully examine the advantages and disadvantages of this process in order to find out whether its benefits surpass its lacks…
In conducting this research, I’ve identified such serious disadvantages of the jury trial:
1) is very expensive and takes too much time to be held;
2) the juries are often inexperienced and not well educated;
3) it is very difficult for the jurors to deal with complex cases;
4) strong effects of the “group thinking” (stronger personalities can impose their opinion and affect the final verdict);
5) the juries are often not truly representative;
6) pre-trial publicity can bias jury;
7) the jury members are subject to human feelings and can often be moved to pity;
8) the jurors are easily swayed by fast-talking lawyers;
9) the jurors often don’t understand the legal issues, term and procedures;
10) some of the jurors may have language problems and therefore be unable to understand the instructions and make notices in a proper way;
11) there is no mechanism of balancing the race and gender structure of the jury;
12) the jurors often fall victims of their own religious, social and cultural bias.
The main advantages of the jury trial are: 1) as there are many persons who have different life experience, knowledge and position, greater part of the individual prejudices is likely to be cancelled out; 2) the jurors are likely to judge in line with generally accepted values of the society and the public trusts the jury verdicts; 3) the discussion between the jurors makes it possible to analyze all aspects of the case and make a fair decision; 4) it is more difficult to corrupt and bribe twelve jurors than just one judge.
Let us stop on the main drawbacks of the jury trial and find out whether they are really so serious and can have an effect on the judgment’s fairness.
Linda Woolhether (2011) states that “Most jurors have little or no training in matters of law. The only legal requirement for a juror is that he knows the facts involved in case being tried. The judge guides the juries in determining the facts they can admit into evidence and the ones they must exclude. Many jurors encounter complicated problems far beyond their training and experience. The lack of legal knowledge allows prosecutors to easily convince and persuade jurors to believe their assertions”. But the jurors are not only unskilled and inexperienced, they often disregard logic presented by the lawyers because of their prejudices, past experience or moral sentiment. Many of them are likely to follow the majority and make the same verdict as the stronger personalities who impose their opinion. For some jury members it is better to go with the majority and return home sooner than try to understand the evidence and make their own independent conclusion. But the problem is that the jurors are often unable to understand complex evidence or to assess the reliability of witness or evidence. Many of the jurors do not know the laws and procedures and remain uninvolved in the trial process. The research study by Matthews, Hancock and Briggs (2004) shows that most of the jurors feel very enthusiastic about their role in the trial process. However, one third of people who serve as jurors find it very inconvenient. This report shows that well educated, skilled people and professionals are under-represented as only skilled manual workers and unskilled workers have enough time to judge longer trials. It is obvious to me that the education level of these people is comparatively low and I hardly believe that they have enough knowledge to get into the details of the trial process. And really, about 60% of the respondents were confused about the fact that they had serious difficulties while listening to the evidence, trying to get better understanding of it and following the instructions. Moreover, about 30% of the jurors face the language problem and need a translator to participate in the trial process. The use of the translator makes the evidence unclear and often doesn’t present it in a proper way. About one third of the jurors feel uncomfortable in the courtroom, but at the same time, the study shows that 90% of people are satisfied with being a jury and realize the meaning and importance of this role. Nevertheless, this study proves that about 30% of the jurors are not well educated (have no degree) and 40% of them have poor knowledge of the court process. My opinion is that the jurors are actually willing to be fair and understand the cases better. The above mentioned problems can be solved by introducing more detailed instructions for the jurors and balancing the numbers of people with different education levels.
A research by Cheryl Thomas (2010) shows that some of the problems concerning the jury trial are obviously exaggerated. So, in her report the author states that she found no proofs that the white jurors are likely to have race stereotypes and make unfair verdicts. At the same time, Thomas writes that some local demographical peculiarities can have an effect on the judgment, but these effects are considered to be relatively small. The report proves that the jury trial is efficient and fair in most cases as those twelve people who serve as jurors really discuss all possible alternatives and spend 99% of their time trying to find the truth and form a verdict. These people do feel responsible for their decisions and try to get better knowledge of law before getting down to a certain case. However, Thomas agrees that there are serious race disproportions in the jury structure and the ethnic minorities are under-represented. The author also agrees that the instructions made for the juries have to be more clear, simple and broad, because many jurors claim that they faced some difficulties in studying these instructions.
After reviewing the mentioned reports, I’ve come to the conclusion that the jury trial is actually fair and efficient and has a 800 years story of success although it is strongly criticized for its drawbacks now. Trial by jury is a long tradition in our country. And though the practice shows that the jurors can be convinced by fast-talking lawyers and can even fall victims of their feeling or personal experience, I truly believe that a jury composed of a diverse and unbiased group of people can lend definite advantages to a person being tried for a crime. All of these people apply common values and provide a barometer of public opinion. They discuss the evidence, analyze the case, search for alternatives and as a result, come to a fair verdict. It is also very important that the participation in the trial process makes people feel part of the system and believe in the fairness of the law system in our country. Yes, I fully agree that there are serious problems concerning the jury structure, level of skills and knowledge, but I think the main argument for retaining the jury trial is that our country has all necessary social, political and moral conditions to improve the system and make it even more efficient. The key lies in the humans’ consciousness and if people feel their responsibility for judging other people and are ready to learn in order to be more skilled and serve their society in a proper way, my answer is quite clear – the trial by jury must be retained. As a conclusion, I would like to cite a famous journalist Charles Davison, who thinks that “At its most basic though, the value of a jury is that it is democratic. It literally brings representatives of the community, with their varying life experiences, occupations, and common sense, into a setting usually (perhaps too often) occupied exclusively by lawyers and judges bound up in legal principles and arguments and precedents and outcomes. At its heart, the jury represents society, and the prevailing views in society, about what sorts of conduct should be penalized and what ought not”. The jury trial really remains the most essential protection of individual liberty and freedom. That is the reason why we should view any attempt to limit its involvement with great caution and scepticism.
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Hostettler, J. (2009). A history of criminal justice in England and Wales. Winchester: Waterside Press
Matthews, R., Hancock, L., and Briggs, D. (2004) Jurors Perceptions, Understanding, Confidence and Satisfaction in the Jury System: A Study in Six Courts. London: Home Office Online Report. Accessible from the Home Office website
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Woolhether, L. (2011). The disadvantages of the jury system. Retrieved from http://www.ehow.com/info_8163035_disadvantages-jury-system.html