Are juries fair? Ministry of Justice offers a qualified ‘Yes’
An 18-month study conducted by UCL Professor Cheryl Thomas for the Ministry of Justice has – with a few reservations – verified that juries are fair.
The study derived evidence from simulated trials in Blackfriars, Winchester and Nottingham, and from analysis of 552 000 real trials that occurred between 2006 and 2008.
The media have taken the study’s lead in emphasising its recommendation that judges provide juries with written guidelines to their oral instructions about the law.
A majority of Nottingham jurors had difficulty understanding judicial directions. The study found that surprisingly few jurors in any city (31%) could answer accurately two simple questions about the instructions they had received, but acknowledged that more jurors did understand the law in their own terms: or they had translated the legal question, ‘Did the defendant believe it was necessary to defend himself?’ into, ‘Did the victim push the defendant first before he was punched?’
Another noteworthy finding contradicted Lord Judge’s worry that
the younger “internet generation” may find the oral presentation of information in jury trials unfamiliar and this may ultimately have a negative impact on jurors’ ability to follow information presented orally at trial.
In fact, many more young than old jurors answered correctly the study’s questions about this information, rather as the majority of jurors who admitted to looking a case up on the internet during the trial were over thirty years old.
The study found no evidence for three popular assumptions: that white juries discriminate against black and ethnic minority defendants, that in certain courts juries rarely convict and that in rape cases juries acquit more often than they convict.
‘One stage in the criminal justice system where BME groups do not face persistent disproportionality is when a jury reaches a verdict’, the study’s summary said. It seemed that sensitivity to race was affected by jurors’ location: white Nottingham jurors were readier than Winchester ones to convict white defendants accused of violence against minorities.
As for rape, the fact that fewer male than female complainants were vindicated in court was said to challenge the view that rates of acquittal in rape cases are affected by sexist bias. However the research did discover that gender was relevant to jury decision-making in a subtler way: ‘Female jurors were more open to persuasion to change their vote in deliberations than male jurors. Male jurors rarely changed their mind’, it concluded.
In a column for The Times, barrister Matthew Scott distinguished between judges’ summaries of the evidence and their directions as to points of law. He alleges that, in the former, more complicated task, judges too often display inappropriate bias, ‘knowing that the more [they appear] to be speaking from a position of lofty disinterest the more effective [their] advocacy will be’.
The study suggested further research into several questions, such as whether communities’ different conceptions of crime are to blame for geographically variable conviction rates, the quality of jurors’ understanding of impropriety rules and whether jurors discuss trials on social networking sites. On this the evidence was clear: ‘jurors want and need new tools to better understand the process.’
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