The Criminal Justice System

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Discuss whether the criminal justice system can rely on twelve ordinary men and women to determine the guilt of defendants in increasingly complex criminal trials

The crown court has a group of twelve people called the jury to determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant. The jury has been part of the English legal system since the twelve century and is defended by some as the bastion of democracy and castigated by others as an unwieldy anachronism that allows miscarriages of justice (Davies, Croall & Tyrer 2010, P.311). Jurors are selected at random, according to the Juries Act 1974 as amended by the Criminal Justice Act 2003 a person is eligible to be selected for jury service if; he is for the time being registered as a parliamentary or local government elector and is not less than eighteen nor more than Seventy years of age; and he has been ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man for any period of at least five years since attaining the age of thirteen. The use of juries has been the subject of conflicting views amongst lawyers, politicians and the public at large in this essay I will be addressing some of the main arguments over the usefulness and reliability of the jury.

One of the main arguments about juries is that they represent a cross-section of the population so that the accused is tried by his or her peers however some people maintain that juries are not representative of society as a whole and therefore are unable to reach a fair verdict that is a reflection of societies views (Davies et al, 2010, P.314). To be summoned for jury service a person must be on the electoral register however the Electoral Commission said more than 3.5m people may not be registered. Its research suggested 56% of 17-25 year olds 49% of private sector tenants and 31% black and minority ethnic (BME) British residents are not registered (The Electoral Commission, 2010, P.5). So therefore the jury cannot be representative of society as a whole if part of society is not eligible to serve within it. Some argue that in order to be tried by your peers a person from an ethnic minority should be able to ensure that a sample of their group is on the jury. It has often been suggested that juries involved in a racial case should be racially balanced and similarly cases involving sexual offences should be equally composed of both men and women. An argument of having a certain jury for a certain case suggests that the random ordinary jury is not able to perform in the required way (Davies et al, 2010, P.315).

Juries can easily be swayed by pre-trial publicity and may result in the jury making a decision on the defendant's guilt based on hear-say. The defense sometimes argue that pre-trial publicity has amounted to an abuse of process, however the following considerations as to how pre-trial publicity may affect a jury have to be taken into account by the court; the court hearing and consideration of the evidence in the case are likely to have far greater impact than recollections of past media reporting; this impact can be reinforced by warnings and directions by the judge to the jury as and when appropriate; the jury system is based upon the assumption that the jury will follow the judge's instructions (Pre-trial Publicity, 2010). The effects of pretrial publicity on jury verdicts were examined in a study by Steblay, Besirevix, Fulero & Jimenez-Lorente (1991, p.219 ) through a meta-analysis of 44 empirical tests representing 5,755 subjects, they found that subjects exposed to negative pre-trial publicity were significantly more likely to judge the defendant guilty compared to subjects exposed to less or no negative pre-trial publicity. If a jury can easily be swayed by pre-trial publicity then their verdict may not be a fair one.

There is a debate on the ability of the jury to cope with information when considering them within complex cases, the debate relies on the nature of the trials, such as fraud trials and trials that involve scientific evidence, it is suggested that this means that the jury cannot competently arrive at proper decisions Bailey (Ching, Gunn & Ormerod, 2002, P. 1236). Ching et al (2002, P.1236) cite the Roskill Committee who said that ‘we do not find trial by a random jury a satisfactory way of achieving justice in cases as long and complex as [many fraud trials]. We believe that many jurors are out of their depth'. Police leaders in Scotland said that the automatic right for trial by jury for the most serious and complex crimes should be abolished. The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland told ministers that juries should be disposed of in the most complex cases to relieve the burden on jurors and to avoid misunderstanding of the facts (Campsie, 2009). The jury is asked to take into account, when coming to their verdict, the evidence that they are presented with, this evidence can be scientific and complex. There was a review on jury performance by Richard Lempert who looked a jury's performance within 12 complex cases. He observed that 'with some frequency trials confront jurors with evidence that only the experts have no difficulty understanding' (Abbot & Batt, 2002, P. 3-6). The head of the Serious Fraud Office called for an end to the right to trial by jury in complicated financial trials. She believed the over-simplification of trials to accommodate jurors' lack of specialized knowledge is resulting in prosecutions failing (Boggan, 1997). These accusations of juries' lack of understanding of complex fraud cases lead the Criminal Justice act 2003 to make a provision for measures to introduce non-jury trial in serious and complex fraud cases (Davies et al, 2010, P.316).

Jurors are required in some cases to decide if the verdict should be not guilty by reason of insanity, meaning that people with no medical knowledge are effectively being asked to make a medical decision. This means that there is a potential for jurors to become confused over the medical evidence due to the terminology of psychiatric medicine. Jurors could also be so sickened by the type of crime committed by the person that they will refuse to give the verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. This was shown in the case of Peter Sutcliff who was charged with the murder of several women, all the medical personnel involved in the case agreed that he was clearly suffering for schizophrenia however the jury ignored this and found him guilty of murder (Martin, 2009, P.171). This shows that juries are sometimes asked to make absurd decisions, that they do not have the required amount of knowledge to make; this could therefore lead to incorrect and unfair verdicts.

Critics of the jury argue that jurors can sometimes be discriminatory, that they do not understand the evidence and that they sometimes reach a verdict based on inappropriate criteria or methods which could lead to wrongful prosecutions and acquittals. In one infamous case it was found that the jury reached their decision using an Ouija spirit board (Malleson, 2007, P.227). Bailey et al (2002, P.1231) said that Darbyshire found, by using U.S research that there were approximately 225 wrongful convictions and 4,000 Wrongful convictions per annum. Baldwin and McConville carried out a review of 400 jury trials by questioning participants; they found that a significant number of acquittals and some convictions were considered doubtful by those in court, leading some to question the reliability of the jury. However the findings from this were contradicted by a Home Office study in 1986 that found there were generally acceptable reasons for acquittals in sample of 320 cases reviewed (Malleson, 2007, P.228). The reason for these wrongful acquittals could be due to the jury deciding cases on whatever grounds it chooses, regardless of the direction of the law by the judge.

Juries tend to focus on the demeanor of the witness rather than other variables such as the circumstances of the encounter and the procedures employed to illicit the identification, that are more predictive of accuracy. Jurors rely heavily on the confidence of the witness as an indicator of accuracy, even though empirical evidence between witness confidence and accuracy is weak (Abbot & Batt, 2002, P. 17-26). A study was conducted by Lindsay, Wells & Rumpel (2007) to examine the juror evaluation of eye witness testimony. In the study witnesses were exposed to a fake theft, then mock jurors then watched the witness answer questions about the incident. Some of the jurors observed an accurate witness correctly identify the theft, while others observed an inaccurate witness incorrectly identify another as the thief; this study indicates that jurors cannot distinguish between accurate and inaccurate witnesses and this may therefore lead to a guilty verdict.

Due the contempt of court Act 1981 it is hard for any research to be conducted, it is in contempt of court to "obtain, disclose or solicit and particulars of statements made, opinions expressed, arguments advanced or votes cast by members of a jury in the course of their deliberations” thus all research into juries have to be carried out in other ways. Darbyshire (2008, P.528) found a lot of interesting facts about juries, highlighting many problems into their decision making. She found that many jurors are influenced by whether they approve or disapprove of the witness. She also found that jurors are disproportionally influenced by evidence that they are told to ignore and are influenced by previous convictions. If this research is true then it is clear that there are a lot of factors that could lead the jury into providing an incorrect verdict.

Juries have been an integral part of the English legal system for several hundred years and there is no acceptable alternative. Unlike judges who decide the guilt in other courts, the juries are not case-hardened and therefore are more likely to have an open mind as they only serve for two weeks and will not hear more than two to three cases. Brody, Acker & Logan (2001, P.51) describe the jury as a necessary counter to case-hardened judges and arbitrary prosecutors. The jury also ensures that unpopular or unjust laws cannot be enforced; they enable the public's view of the criminal justice system to be reflected. But there are several problems that exist such as their inability to handle complex issues and their vulnerability to pre-trial publicity and prejudice. Overall there will always be problems with the reliability of juries within the criminal justice system especially within complex cases, but they are an integral part of the English justice system.