Dating as far back as Ancient Rome and Greece, the jury system has been the heart of democracy and justice over many years. Today juries continue to play an essential role in ensuring that our justice system reflects community values. However in a world that seems to be spinning faster than ever before, aspects of the jury system have undeniably become outdated and cumbersome. There have been calls that the system be scrapped, however in most cases reforms and modifications can ensure the continuing success of the jury system.
One of the most compelling reasons to retain a trial by jury is that it safeguards everyone from unfair or unreasonable laws. An example of this is the Euthanasia laws. Opinion polls show strong opposition to laws which criminalise voluntary euthanasia, yet people have ended up being charged under murder offences for merely being beside a loved one who chose to end their own life. In these contentious cases, jurors have exercised their own discretion and morals to acquit those who may have broken the rule in the book but didn’t act out of bad intent. Few people have been convicted by a British jury in a euthanasia case, and in Australia all juries have acquitted. Judges must follow strict rules and procedure and cannot acquit for personal moral reasons, this gives juries a very unique and essential role in protecting those unfairly charged.
On the other hand, a major downside of the Jury system is that jurors have biases of their own and cannot always give a fair hearing. This was evident in the United States during the 1992 Rodney King case. King was violently beaten in a racial attack by police officers and despite strong incriminating video evidence, the entirely white jury acquitted the police officers charged. Legal experts have condemned the jury’s decision labelling it unfair and purely racially based. A judge hearing the case alone would not be able to blatantly apply personal biases in a similar manner to this jury.
Juries can also pick up other biases from media reports. For example, many people worldwide have some sort of an opinion on whether or not the McCann parents killed their daughter Madeline. These opinions could be based on a media report showing someone giving their own unqualified opinion, circumstantial evidence or hearsay evidence which would all be inadmissible in court. If the McCann parents were ever unfortunate enough to be tried by a jury, pre-conceived ideas from media reports would undoubtedly result in a less than fair hearing.
With the tabloids consistently blasting judges for being “out of touch”, juries have the advantage of adding an extra layer of credibility to the legal system. As juries represent all aspects of the community and are entirely independent and impartial from the judicial system, it is highly regarded as a ‘trial by ones peers’. Judges are generally from a very narrow socio-economic background and cannot represent all interests. Juries’ verdicts are generally seen as the most reasonable and in touch with community values and are essential to keep our legal system credible to the community.
A counter argument to this is that jurors are inexperienced in legal matters and it’s inappropriate for them make complex decisions. Jurors have been known to be swayed merely by the performance and eloquence of a well-spoken barrister rather than by the evidence itself. This is unlikely to occur with a well-experienced judge hearing the case on their own. More training could be given to jurors to overcome this problem.
Complex fraud and copyright cases are sometimes just out of the reach of the average juror to understand. This has left small-time fraudsters being convicted, while big-time cases being acquitted by a confused jury. Recent amendments have tried to resolve these problems in the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Act 2006-07. Estimated to effect around 15-20 cases a year, cases classed as too lengthy or complex would be heard by a judge alone. Although these laws roll back the jury system where it’s undeniably appropriate, they still recognise its importance in the vast majority of cases to ensure the legal system can continue to function effectively.
Some other possible amendments to the jury system include giving the accused the choice of whether or not they have a jury trial or judge alone, which could substantially reduce costs. It has also been recommended that in some complex cases, a specialised foreman who has knowledge in the specific area and technicalities of the case is appointed to the jury and can advise them on these complex matters. This would increase the effectiveness of a jury, however the jury may arguably be swayed too much by the specialised juror, rather than their own opinions.
On the whole, juries are an effective method of ensuring a fair and democratic justice system. They ensure that community values are enforced through the law, they give a more human side to the judicial system which cannot be given by a judge following strict rules and procedure. The Jury system is not perfect, but there is little evidence to say that it has reached its use-by date.