I can’t say that I am overjoyed to hear the news that the government plans to increase the maximum age of jurors from 70 to 75. I had been looking forward to just a few more years of misery before I became too old to be called. I have a horror of doing jury service. The rationale for that horror is the responsibility such a position holds. The outcome of a jury trial can be life-changing for the defendant (and, of course, for the friends and relatives of the victim of the offence being tried). The awful responsibility on the jurors is, therefore, considerable. I for one, although I am ‘ready to serve’ if called upon, prefer not to have to shoulder such a weighty burden.
My researches into 19th century criminal cases show that in the majority of hearings tried by jury, the outcome was flawed; sometimes severely so. In Henry Hatch’s case, eleven of his original jury subsequently declared in a letter to the Queen, that had they been aware of certain evidence, they would never have convicted him. Yet they did convict him, to the disquiet of many of the newspapers that had heard exactly the same evidence that they had. In Henry's subsequent action against his solicitor for incompetence, the jury found in his favour, but awarded him only 40 shillings damages – because one of them told the rest that 40 shillings would cover Henry’s costs!
In Thomas Smethurst’s trial for murder, one of the jurymen asked to be excused, ‘because he had formed an extreme prejudice against the prisoner’. When the judge refused this, he pleaded that attending the trial would have an adverse effect on his business... The subsequent verdict of guilty caused outrage in the press - who had heard exactly the same evidence as the jurors. More than 200 letters to the newspapers and 35 editorials later, the Home Secretary reversed the conviction.
There exist a number of recent cases where jurors have been reported for a less than serious commitment to justice. I recall the case of a woman alleged to have been listening to music on an earphone hidden under her headscarf. On another occasion, a woman was late back after lunch because she had attended a sale ‘and purchased a real bargain’. The judge fined her the cost of the bargain. More recently jurors have been sent to prison for Googling the case they were trying and discussing the results with their fellow jurors.
It would be a brave person indeed who suggested in serious debate that there might be a better system for achieving justice than the jury system. But speaking for myself, I tremble at the thought of being either side of the dock in a Crown Court.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs