Liberal Democrats must speak out for jury trials

When anyone attacks the jury system, Liberal Democrats should be vocal and prominent in defending it.

Just a few days into 2022 we saw, after the acquittal of the Colston 4, a sustained attack from Conservative voices. Their target was not just the verdict but on the jury system generally.
Juries are a precious safeguard of freedom. Our party has said so many times in our policy papers. The fight to establish juries as the fundamental deciders of whether a defendant is guilty or not was hard won. It was a struggle over centuries. It is a story entwined with the anti-establishment roots of the Liberal Democrats.

Last week’s mudslinging at the “the lamp by which liberty shines” (as Lord Bridge once called juries) is not the first bout of Tory anti-juryism. But it is particularly disquieting, albeit foreseeable, to hear it from buddies of the present government. The words of Conservative journalists and backbenchers are often used to scout positions and for ministers to stoop down to later.

Tory ministers have a record of trying to upend constitutional safeguards for partisan interest. Attempting to prorogue parliament to prevent votes on Brexit in Autumn 2019 was perhaps the worst example. The astonishing, repeated coincidences of donations with honours or policy outcomes is another. It is easy to imagine that this dangerous government might seek to interfere with the jury system.

We saw Conservatives falsely claim the Bristol jury had ignored the law or the judge’s directions. There is no evidence that the jury did this. There were defences in law available to the Colston 4 defendants. It was open to the jury to find that factual circumstances existed which meant one or more of the defences applied.

Other Conservatives said the verdict was “political”. I am not sure in what sense they were using the term but it was clearly suggesting that jurors had been influenced by considerations they should not have placed importance on.

At least one Conservative MP said something must be done to stop juries returning such verdicts in future. A tabloid called for actions against “woke juries”.

Even if the Bristol jury did acquit in spite the evidence and law (and it must be stressed there is no evidence they did that – it was open to them to acquit because of the evidence and law) then I would point out that that possibility is a purpose of a jury. Twelve randomly selected local residents are intended to be a safety against lawmakers or prosecutors or judges having gotten away from the ordinary person’s standard of fair play.

Other countries go further than us and use juries in many civil cases. Some jurisdictions involve juries or panel of citizens in the planning system.

Our jury system was prominently defended last week by working lawyers and retired judges and prosecutors. To give him his due, Jacob Rees-Mogg broke with the right of his party for a few minutes to defend the jury system too.

Liberal Democrats are qualified by our history and values to champion the jury system. The majority of the public who support juries need to know we are on their side. So too, do the people deeply committed to the jury system – working lawyers, human rights campaigners, retired judges and prosecutors among others. You should not assume they know the Liberal Democrats agree with them or that they are convinced we are the strong voices for their values that they deserve. It’s a role we must step strongly into as our political ancestors did.

* Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England (2019) and has practised as a barrister since 2003. He is currently Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Kent County Council.

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18 Comments

  • Tristan Ward 11th Jan '22 - 10:31am

    For anyone interested here are the directions explaining the law given to the jury by the judge.

    The other crucial point is that a judge cannot require a jury to convict, even if a defendant says s/he is guilty.

    https://barristerblogger.com/2022/01/09/colston-summing-up-those-legal-directions-in-full/

  • Peter Martin 11th Jan '22 - 10:48am

    The principle of trial by jury sounds good in theory but there are problems. In a high profile case it is impossible to find a truly impartial jury. Nearly every jury will have been influenced to a greater or lesser extent by what the media have reported. Most juries will be influenced to a greater or lesser extent on what papers such as the Daily Mail will have had to say.

    Colin Stagg was tried in public and found guilty of the murder of Rachel Nickell, on Wimbledon Common, long before the his case came to court. Fortunately for him, and the English Justice system, the Judge decided that the evidence against him was so flimsy that the case should be thrown out. We cannot be sure if the jury would have reached the same conclusion but from past experience we could not expect that the “beyond reasonable doubt” test would have been applied. There have been too many cases where convictions have been obtained simply because the jury have felt that they had to find the defendants guilty regardless of the lack of reliable evidence. The most high profile cases involved acts of IRA terrorism, such as in the trials of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, but there are plenty of others which are less well known.

    The mass wrongful convictions of post office managers and workers is evidence enough that our justice system is fundamentally flawed. They were all convicted by juries. The jury system isn’t a guarantee of the best outcome.

  • Well said Antony, a well argued case!!

  • David ROGERS 11th Jan '22 - 11:46am

    “Even if the Bristol jury did acquit in spite the evidence”… a few words lifted from your article Antony, and most certainly the appearance given by reports of the original incident which resulted in this case. Nevertheless you are quite right that Liberal Democrats in particular should be the stoutest defenders of the jury system, and your piece as a whole does just that!

  • Antony Hook

    Would you be writing the same supportive article if a jury had just acquitted a far right group that had been charged with upending Nelson Mandela’s statue in the same circumstances?

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 11th Jan '22 - 1:02pm

    @ John O.

    I’d vouch for Antony on this but, perhaps, given that his view is representative of the overwhelming majority of the legal profession, your suggestion that trial by jury should only exist for the “right sort of person” indicates that you’re part of the problem here.

    Perhaps this might help…

    https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=thomas+more+a+man+for+all+seasons&docid=607986598446788909&mid=1EAF1AAD82017406DD251EAF1AAD82017406DD25&view=detail&FORM=VIRE

  • Tristan Ward 11th Jan '22 - 1:26pm

    To John O

    As a lawyer (not specialising in criminal law) and as a liberal the answer, had I written the article, is of course “yes”.

    What you don’t know of course is whether I or Antony think the jury’s decision in the statue case was “correct”. But I at least am happy to accept the jury’s decision as being made in good faith by “12 good men and true” as representatives of the public who heard all the evidence. Having read the judge’s directions to the jury their decision does not seem perverse.

    I am not telling you whether I agree with the decision for the avoidance of doubt.

  • Jury trials are indispensable and must be protected. One of the more insidious proposals from New Labour was to do away with juries in cases deemed too “complex” for ordinary people to understand.

    That said they occasionally come out with ridiculous verdicts such as that in the Colston trial and John Oundle’s alternative example is relevant and something that people who defend the Colston verdict need to consider. The Court of Appeal should review the judges directions on that case.

    However the occasional perverse outcome is not a reason to change the system.

  • Yeovil Yokel 11th Jan '22 - 6:40pm

    Thanks for the link to the Colston judge’s directions, Tristan, very interesting. When I sat on a Crown Court jury about a decade ago I wished we’d received that level of assistance towards our difficult deliberations.

  • Stewart Edge 12th Jan '22 - 10:11am

    I agree Anthony. Well argued.
    I agree with Anthony despite Peter Martin’s comments that juries have produced decisions which have been later proved to be incorrect. Difficult. Would adding the Scottish verdict of ‘not proven’ help – by giving a jury an alternative route when they feel uncertain?

  • David Goble 12th Jan '22 - 5:42pm

    @ Peter Martin; I agree with your comments. I do wonder if, in some cases, the jury are moved to find the defendant guilty “in case” he/she committed the crime for which they were being tried, rather than the “beyond all reasonable doubt” criterion. I think that juries can be influenced by press reports and social media and feel that their impartiality can, in some cases, be called into question.

  • Peter Martin 12th Jan '22 - 6:25pm

    @ David @ Stewart,

    ” I do wonder if, in some cases, the jury are moved to find the defendant guilty “in case” he/she committed the crime for which they were being tried, rather than the “beyond all reasonable doubt” criterion.”

    Yes, in my experience, this is very much the case. The worse the crime the more likely the jury is to convict on scanty evidence – just in case they are letting a serial killer go free. In other words, a possible burglar may well be acquitted on the same level of evidence that would convict a possible murderer.

    The phrase “beyond reasonable doubt” isn’t used quite so much now. Instead, the Judge will ask the jury to convict if they “are sure”. Arguably it means the same thing but, if it does, why the desire to avoid the original phrase?

    I agree we should look at the ‘not proven’ verdict. Scotland has traditionally had this option but the move there is to drop that option and come into line with England.

    https://www.gov.scot/publications/not-proven-verdict-related-reforms-consultation/pages/3/

  • Andrew Melmoth 12th Jan '22 - 7:13pm

    Most high profile miscarriages of justice, such as the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, have been the result of misconduct by the police rather than shortcomings in the jury system.

    From what we know of the evidence presented and the legal arguments made by the defence in the Colston statue trial the jury had perfectly reasonable grounds on which to acquit. Whether you agree with the verdict or not it plainly was not ridiculous. If it had been a statue of Jimmy Savile I find it hard to imagine anyone arguing that the acquittal was perverse.

    As to referring the judge’s directions to the Court of Appeal for review Suella Braverman has given no grounds as to why such an unusual step is necessary. No-one as far as I’m aware has been able to tell us what aspect of the Judge’s directions were legally suspect. We have, I’m afraid, for the first time in my life a British government that is fundamentally hostile to the institutions of democracy and only too willing to undermine the rule of law for political ends.

  • Peter Martin 13th Jan '22 - 9:47am

    @ Andrew Melmoth

    “….. the result of misconduct by the police rather than shortcomings in the jury system.”

    The system is constantly changing. Hardly anyone knows how it works. The only fair method would be for members to be selected at random rather than selected. At one time ex-police officers weren’t allowed to sit on juries. Now they are. The composition of individual juries isn’t allowed to be discussed in public.

    I suspect the Establishment in the Colston statue case weren’t too keen to have a conviction. This would have created martyrs and wouldn’t have resolved anything from their POV. If they had been, the jury wouldn’t have been the same one which delivered the acquittal.

  • Andrew Melmoth 13th Jan '22 - 12:48pm

    – Peter Martin

    Juries are selected at random. If you have evidence of jury tampering in this trial I suggest you contact the proper authorities.

    It’s a matter of public record that the establishment, in the person of the Home Secretary, meddled quite improperly in police operational matters and pushed for prosecution and conviction of the Colston Four.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jan '22 - 11:51am

    @ Andrew,

    Politicians often make public statements simply for public consumption. Keir Starmer wasn’t much better than Priti Patel with his “It shouldn’t have been done in that way, it was completely wrong to pull a statue down like that.”

    These types of comments often don’t reflect what actually goes on behind the scenes. If the Establishment had wanted a guilty verdict the case could have been heard in a magistrates court. That would have increased the likelihood. “Tampering” is too strong a word. There is scope for juries to be vetted. See

    https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/jury-vetting

    Naturally if the defence suspect that the vetting is going to be to their disadvantage they are likely to object but, of course they won’t if it is the other way around. Sometimes it is necessary to be seen to be wanting a conviction without actually wanting the political problems it would bring! Another example that springs to mind is the case of four women who were acquitted of damaging jets bound for Saudi Arabia. They had clearly done the deed in the same way as the Colston 4.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Jan '22 - 2:24pm

    Vested interests by tabloids in saying anything that fuels the woke, so called issues, these polarised debates sell copy. Antony here rebuts these absurd levels of trivialising what is important.

    Juries are important. They ought to be defended. Antony is correct here.

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