THE BLOG

The Vicky Pryce Trial and the Case for Juries

04/03/2013 16:33 GMT | Updated 04/05/2013 10:12 BST

The Vicky Pryce trial should not have an adverse effect on trials by jury. Mr Justice Sweeney at Southwark Crown Court made it quite clear that such issues with juries not understanding the basics of the proceedings and the law, are very rare and it would seem that the trial collapsed because the jury was unable to reach a majority verdict. As such, the judge had no option but to discharge them because a majority verdict is the minimum requirement for a guilty/innocent outcome.

There will always be some trials which are simply too complicated for juries which is why some complex cases such as fraud can proceed without a jury in place. Juryless trials are also common practice in the civil courts and have been since the 1800s with a few exceptions such as defamation. Juries can also be done away with if there is a real concern over jury tampering. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 Part 7 entitled "Trials on Indictment Without a Jury", sets out certain fraud cases that can proceed without a jury and cases where there is a danger of jury tampering. High profile cases can and should be dealt with by juries due to the fact that they are often high profile because they are in the public interest and thus they should be judged by the public; the jury is a representation of a cross-section of the public.

While there are clear restrictions in place on juries and their access to media about the trial they are judging - it is the enforcement of the restrictions that seems lacking. The support for juries is there as the courts really work hard to explain the law and direct the jury as to its role, but in high profile cases, there is not enough to ensure that jurors do not access the media about the case, despite warnings from the judge.

Jurors usually get it right. There is no way of knowing why they didn't understand what was going on in Vicky Pryce's case. We should review how we ensure jurors adhere to their rules of conduct by perhaps putting them up in hotels with no access to the outside world (but this raises issues of reasonableness and human rights). There are numerous websites and plenty of guidance provided by the courts to jurors about the dos and don'ts of being a juror and fines can be imposed (e.g. non-attendance) and offences brought (e.g. perverting the course of justice by speaking about the case) for breaches. But there is no meaningful way of ensuring that all the rules are adhered to. When jurors are at home, they could easily access media or speak to other people who are not jurors, about the case.

Perhaps we also need to review the way we select jurors, as understanding basic concepts was an issue for most of them here, although then, any conditions could mean we are not selecting a real cross-section of the public.

There are a lot of reasons why a jury is, and always will be, essential in the majority of cases, but I think one of the most important reasons is because it is not just the law, but the facts of each case that need to be evaluated. Although it is fair to say that judges are in the best position to analyse the law in any given situation, it is people like the defendant that should assess the facts of the defendant's case and how the law applies to the facts to ensure the defendant gets a fair trial. It is the fact that a lot of the jurors will have experienced the issues being discussed in the case that will put them in the best position to establish fact from fiction. It may be a very long time before our judges come from all sections of our community. At the moment they don't because they tend to be Caucasian men of middle class and higher standing, though we should bear in mind that the courts are pushing forward a new agenda of increasing the intake of female and ethnic minority judges as well as those that are disabled. Until our judges can reflect us, the people, in their composition, trial by jury still serves an important purpose.