Jurors Beware. The Possible Perils Of Jury Service
When the letter from the Ministry of Justice drops on your doormat, many of us think it is quite an inconvenience to have to do jury service. I know equal numbers will feel perhaps a sense of pride in doing their civic duty. Members of both groups will also feel a sense of trepidation about the weight of responsibility that is about to be thrust upon them, the decision on the guilt or innocence of a fellow member of society.
There are a lot of contrasting views and emotions among those prospective jurors. A diverse group of 12 people, almost certainly strangers to each other, are about to spend quite a few days or even months together. They are expecting to have to listen to, watch and read the evidence. Then they expect to decide on the defendant’s fate, guilt or innocence. What they may not have considered is their own fate if they do not follow the rules set out by the Judge during the course of the trial.
At the start of every trial, the Judge will remind the jury of the rules surrounding their task. I have sat through countless examples of a Crown Court Judge warning the jury of what they must not do as well as what they should do. I always listen attentively, of course. My fellow advocates are often not such generous listeners. One advocate told me that he thinks of it as being on a plane before take-off, when an air steward/stewardess tells the passengers what to do if the plane crashes in the sea. In other words, he does not listen. Do the jury listen? I always assumed so, I think they surely do, don’t they? They really, really should.
As you may have heard, a juror recently fell foul of the law. The case facts are well reported in the press, referring to the original trial in January 2021. The juror in question had been appointed the foreman.
The reports in the press suggests the jury was initially split and could not reach a verdict. Our foreman went home at the end of the day, with the jury still undecided and very much split. He then did something he had been warned specifically not to do. He carried out his own research. In particular, he looked up on the internet the amount of force needed to break a bone, apparently a pertinent question in the trial.
On his return to court the next day, during the course of the jury’s deliberations, he was said to have influenced the other jurors to the point some of them changed their mind. A unanimous verdict of guilty was returned by the jury.
In May 2022, for reasons unknown, one of those jurors complained; it is not clear how much he knew or did not know about the extent of the research done. The foreman himself was then arrested, he was charged with a criminal offence of sharing research with a jury. He found himself in court as a defendant; yes the foreman of the jury was now the defendant. He pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence, and ordered to pay £1,000 costs and a £500 fine. I may be alone here, but I can’t help feel sorry for him. I don’t defend him; he is wrong, he was correctly prosecuted and was probably lucky to avoid an immediate term of imprisonment, but I can’t help but feel sorry for him all the same.
The law is very clear on this issue and does not share my forgiving view of what happened. Under S 20 B of the Juries Act 1974, it is a criminal offence to share research with other jurors. The CPS guidance from the legislation is as follows;
It is an offence to “intentionally disclose information to another member of the jury during the trial period that has been obtained by research in contravention of section 20A and the information has not been provided by the court (s.20B JA 1974).”
Our foreman’s position was made worse by the fact the Judge had specifically reminded all of the jurors of this offence of researching, telling them not to do it before the trial started. While I cannot say what this juror was given, I understand all jurors are supposed to be given a document called “Your responsibility as a Juror”.
This short three-page large print document includes the following sentence “it is illegal for you to look for any information at all about your case on the internet or anywhere else during the trial”.
The trial Judge did tell our foreman verbally not to research anything, and the Crown Court Bench Book (the rule book for our Judges) tells Judges what to do when the jury is first chosen; it says as follows,
“Trial judges should instruct the jury on general matters which will include the time estimate for the trial and normal sitting hours. The jury will always need clear guidance on the following:
i. The need to try the case only on the evidence and remain faithful to their oath or affirmation;
ii. The prohibition on internet searches for matters related to the trial, issues arising or the parties;”
But why do we have to enforce this and other rules related to a jury? Well, in the case of our foreman, the guilty verdict of that man who was convicted was quashed. A re-trial is to take place. An average jury trial costs thousands of pounds to the taxpayer. The whole jury system rests on the confidence we have in the fairness and transparency of the trial process. When that breaks down, so does the trust we have in the process. That is why such draconian measures are taken against people who have no criminal record and were acting as essentially unpaid helpers while they were on the jury.
Juries are given ample warning not to research the case and only form their view based on the evidence they hear in court. That is not advice; it is a clear statement of the law. The maximum penalty if you do not follow this, is two years imprisonment, which if nothing else will focus all our minds to follow the rules of being a juror.
I really do feel for this poor man, the foreman. For the rest of us, when our turn comes, make sure we do not fall foul of the same rules. Really, it is just like when you are on a plane about to take off; listen to what you are being told, it might just be vital.