Reflections on Whether Jury Trials Should Be Abolished

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A jury is defined as a body of persons convened by the process of law to represent the public at a trial and to “discharge upon oath or affirmation defined public duties”. The main act that governs the jury system is the Jury Act 1974, which were largely amended by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The notion of including a jury dates to 1215 and the notions that had been derived from Magna Carta have only been reformed a few times in history. “No freeman shall be taken or/and imprisoned, or disseised, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor will we send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or/and by the law of the land”. This phrase is translated from the famous Clause 39 of Magna Carta and claims that a trial by jury has been ‘enshrined’ as a constitutional right, this myth was later derived from Devlin by many other authors as he put forward this claim in 1956. However, the clause itself has been pointed out as having nothing to do with trial by jury and legal historian Cornish explains that it has always been “bad history to trace the jury system back to Magna Carta”. The interpretation of clause 39 has had vast effects on English constitutional history due to these errors with misinterpretation.

There are arguments that both support and criticize the use of a jury in courts, some due to tradition and others due to opinion, however, neither lead to a clear decision on whether the jury should be abolished. A jury system within court holds many advantages, when being tried by a jury, instead of being tried by a single judge or magistrate, instead it is the idea that you are being held before your peers who may be able to relate to personal circumstances. The verdict in cases being held in front of a jury, in most cases need to be a unanimous decision, all members of the jury need to agree whether the defendant is innocent or guilty or there must at least be a majority vote of 10 out of 11 or 9 out of 10 jurors, as the jurors must be impartial. A jury vary rarely knows much about the legal procedure and are therefore not as ‘case-hardened’ as Judges would be. The idea that with twelve jurors, a wide variety of opinions and input is culminated together in the final decision, is reasonable as in retrospect twelve heads are better than one as a single judge only has one viewpoint and this is purely of the legal perspective. A decision can be made on what seems right and not whether the offence is illegal or not, as a judge can only administer a verdict based on the facts laid before whereas a jury can decide based on their opinion and reflection of their own life experiences. The main idea of a jury is to allow public participation in that the ordinary citizen can take part in the administration of justice which in turn satisfies the constitutional tradition of judgement by one’s peers. Lord Denning described jury service as giving “ordinary folk their finest lesson in citizenship” and these verdicts are those of society rather than the judicial system. “A trial by jury is more than just an instrument of justice… it is now been regarded as the lamp that shows that freedom lives”, this was a statement put forward by Lord Devlin in 1956, and the question is, can these views still be applied to a legal system today. Although there are some compelling reasons as to why a jury is a substantial benefit to the criminal justice system, it seems that the disadvantages significantly outweigh that of the advantages.

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The jury evokes extreme views, whether it be that trial by jury is an ‘ancient right’ and a ‘bastion of liberty’, meaning that the ordinary person’s common sense and their views can inform decisions and contain the powers of government. Or, the idea that the jury is regarded as a “costly, sometimes incompetent anachronism that merely creates opportunities for ‘professional’ criminals at a great public expense”. It appears that the latter has become a view that has gained substantial support and it shows in that the English jury has declined massively as they have been overly expensive and takes up too much valuable time. “The jury is an anti-democratic, irrational and haphazard legislator, whose erratic and secret decisions run counter to the rule of law” and is far from being Devlin's “little parliament”, as the jury is the very antithesis, “unaccountable and its decision is designed to permit no argument”. Court proceedings today have shown a decrease in juries and they have already been making less of an appearance with many interests in crime control and efficiency along with the growth in the number of criminal trials.

One of the more prominent problems of using a jury in court is that they are laymen in the administration of justice, and this can show potential that a mistake must occur in some trials. A study conducted of 370 trials at Birmingham Crown Court in the late 1970’s inevitably showed three harrowing results in that 25% of all acquittals were questionable, 5% of the convictions were questionable and that there was significant evidence that some trials were racially biased. The claims that the jury has often been perceived as racist with cases that can prove this notion. In the case of Sander v UK, in which the jury were making explicit racist remarks and jokes throughout the trial and therefore, should have been discharged by the judge for these actions.

Many believe that the way in which a jury is selected can potentially be one of the main reasons as to why there is currently an increase in racial bias within a jury. A jury is selected from individuals registered on the electoral role. However, this gives there a limit on a cross selection of society members. There are also many people of the younger generation that have not registered themselves to vote, and the number of young adults who are registering to vote has been decreasing each year. Those who are not a British UK national are unable to vote, and therefore are not on the electoral role to be chosen, thus making those who are in the random selection is not completely multi-cultural.

Media coverage has been known to sway the proceedings of a jury. The media itself indirectly influences an individual and their opinions on certain aspects of everyday life, including that of a potential jury. It is not often that jury will be present for all high-profile cases, but they are present for some. The media is known to place misconceptions and wild accusations in order to make the news sell, whether the information they provide be misleading, vicious or prejudice, the impact that social media has on individuals is suffocating. A case in which the media had high influence over jurors and misleading them was in that of R v Taylor and Taylor. The case involved two sisters who were charged with murder, a local and newspaper published a picture from a video which gave the public a false impression of the case. In which the Court of Appeal decided that the best form of action to take is to squash the verdict of the jury for the possibility that their opinion had been influenced by the media coverage.

The jury is often viewed as a ‘little parliament’ and known to be democratic, it acts as a barrier for state power which can include their oppressive prosecution. Jurors also bring their own equity to the table, allowing their own life experiences to help guide them towards their judgement. However, this can be harmful to a case as a juror’s equity can also convict the innocent. A study was released in 2007, showing just how many times a jury would give an incorrect verdict. Bruce Spencer conducted a study in order to investigate the accuracy of a jury’s verdict. By studying jury verdicts statistically, he found that out of 271 cases from four different areas, one out of eight cases were found to have wrong jury verdicts.

Not only is there a possibility of a jury being wrong, there is also the fact that a juror does not have the training that is required to better understand complex law. The jury is briefed about the case before the trial commences and are then led through the case as the trial goes on.

A further reason as to why the jury system can be a disadvantage is that some trials can be very traumatic to the jurors. This was evident after the trials of the James Bulgar case, in which all jurors had to receive counselling once the trial was over. The significance of the case being so sensitive cause mental harm on the jurors in having to convict an individual as young as ten years old for such a horrific crime to a child of the age of two.

Roskill (1986) concluded that a trial by random jury was not a satisfactory way of achieving justice as many of the jurors were “out of their depth”. Roskill was led to this conclusion due to their inexperience or ignorance. Jurors can often rely too heavily on what they are told by lawyers at the expense of the real issues. This is evident in a New Zealand trial in 1999 which suggested jurors had serious problems understanding key legal terms like ‘Intention’ and ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. This lack of competence had raised reasonable concerns especially seeing as a jury also had issues in the understanding of complex fraud cases.

Corruption within a jury can cause a substantial number of problems, threats and bribery have previously been used as means of persuading a juror to give the non-guilty verdict. In 1982, there were several (Old Bailey) trials that came to a halt when the jury was in suspicion of accepting bribes and/or being threatened in order to give a certain verdict. In order to tackle these problems, the Criminal Procedure and Investigation Act 1996 introduced a new offence of intimidating or threating to harm jurors.

There are ways in which the use of a jury can be improved in order to tackle the many disadvantages that have been highlighted above. The idea that a jury is too incompetent due to their knowledge of law and the complexity of many phrases used during trials can be dealt with by getting a jury to partake in an exercise in which the case is explained in detail, the meaning of the key words that are going to be used, and also what the court already knows about the defense and how they are going to proceed during the trial. This will ensure that everyone has a clear understanding of the case, rather than relying on the words of the lawyers and will eliminate any misconceptions that could potentially affect the ending verdict. Each individual will have a different conception of crime and different beliefs on how a crime should be deal with, the means of dealing with this would be an attitude survey that should be taken before the trial commences, the survey will determine the view point of each juror and will help explain how they would interpret a crime in different communities and provide an explanation for the different conviction rates in court trials with a jury present. A way to see how media coverage on high profile cases and the effect it had on the jurors would be to collect information and establish what types of media reports were most difficult for jurors to put out of their minds as the trial was going on and to determine the nature of pre-trial media reports they recall.

In consideration to all the information given above, there are balanced views on whether the jury system should be retained or abolished. There are quite a few disadvantages to the system that could inevitably be resolved if the correct reforms were to take place, especially one considering the confusion of a juror to the technical terms that are often used in a case that would be difficult for those without a criminal law knowledge to comprehend.

Overall, it seems that most information leads towards the idea that a jury should be abolished, the disadvantages highly outweigh the support that is given as to why the jury should be retained, however, keeping the jury system in its current condition would not be beneficial to the criminal justice system. There are quite a few reforms that would need to take place in order to ensure that the jury system would remain to be unbiased, and truthful in their opinion on a case.

There are a few variables that cannot be controlled, today there are many ways to access the internet and have all information that could potentially sway an individual’s opinion quite literally at their fingertips. With today’s technology, keeping a juror away from any media outlets could be virtually impossible. The media has too much of a hold on each individual and will continue to be influenced by it every day.

Another variable that cannot be controlled is what is discussed in the room when a jury is coming to a verdict, there is no way to tell if any other individual let their personal opinion known and caused others to change their minds and agree rather than stay true to their own opinion as no matter how independent an individual can seem to be, there is always a chance of peer pressure and conforming to the popular belief getting in the way.

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Reflections on Whether Jury Trials Should Be Abolished. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/reflections-on-whether-jury-trials-should-be-abolished/
“Reflections on Whether Jury Trials Should Be Abolished.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/reflections-on-whether-jury-trials-should-be-abolished/
Reflections on Whether Jury Trials Should Be Abolished. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/reflections-on-whether-jury-trials-should-be-abolished/> [Accessed 23 Jul. 2024].
Reflections on Whether Jury Trials Should Be Abolished [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2024 Jul 23]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/reflections-on-whether-jury-trials-should-be-abolished/
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