When the trial of Chris Huhne’s ex-wife Vicky Pryce collapsed on Wednesday, the judge felt moved to declare that the jury had, in his opinion, demonstrated “a fundamental deficit in understanding” in the task that was required of them, an occurrence which “in 30 years of criminal trials (he) had never come across”. He was, of course, referring to a list of 10 questions submitted to him by the jury, a list which is now quickly gaining notoriety across the blogosphere and which has prompted one commentator to even label the jury as the worst “in the history of mankind”.
It is fair to say that the incompetence of the jury in this case might be an isolated one. But it does raise some pertinent questions about how juries are selected in English courts. For example, should potential jurors have to undergo a test to ensure they understand the basic workings of the court and the legal system? Whilst I think such a test would be counter-productive at best, there is certainly more that could be done to encourage better quality juries, one of which would be ensuring a better representation of society serves on them.
I myself have been summoned for jury duty. As it was in the middle of the university semester I armed myself with a letter from my department explaining why I could not fulfil my civic duty. Anecdotally, I’m sure many readers on here will have friends or relatives who have similarly avoided jury summons for a variety of reasons. This invariably reduces the pool from which the courts have to pick juries from.
Instead of placing the onus on businesses to ensure individuals can fulfil their civic duty the government should instead take on some these requirements on behalf of society which, after all, benefits from the jury service of its individual citizens. Currently, employers can ask employees to delay service “if their absence would seriously harm your business”. In addition, although individuals can claim an allowance for jury service, it is down to the employer to make up the shortfall between this and their current salaries. Instead, the government ensuring that the allowance for jury service matches the salary of the individual claiming it. Or it could include some tax relief for businesses when an employee is absent for jury service. Regardless of the means, the principle of greater government support for those serving on juries will ensure that the pool of talent available to the courts is as wide as possible, and will improve the quality of juries as a whole. Whilst this might not be a perfect solution it is certainly something to ponder in light of recent events in South London.
* Alex Paul is a Lib Dem member. Originally from London, he now lives and works in Washington, D.C.