Justice Is Too Important for Judges Alone; Legal Reform: Trevor Grove Assesses the Auld Report's Suggestions on Reforming the Jury System

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Byline: TREVOR GROVE

THIS country is unique in the world in one remarkable respect: the key roles in our criminal justice system are played not by smooth lawyers and out-of-touch judges but by lay people.

"Lay, adj (non-professional, amateur) ultimately from Greek laos, people," says the dictionary. It is the non-professional public's close involvement in the administration of the law that is one reason for our long history of political stability and civil liberty.

This centuries-old principle has already come under oblique attack by the Government, chiefly for reasons of economy and efficiency. Now the Auld report is adding to the pressure - in particular on the jury system. It is possible to argue that the reforms being mooted could lead to better justice, which in the Home Office's book means more convictions. It is harder to claim they wouldn't gnaw at the roots of our participatory judicial system.

As things stand, almost every criminal case that comes to court is resolved by amateurs.

That may be an odd thing to boast about in this age of specialisation, but I think it is something of which we should be intensely proud and protective.

More than 95 per cent of these cases are dealt with by lay magistrates - some 30,000 ordinary, unpaid men and women drawn from the local community, whose only tangible reward is the strongly discouraged privilege of putting the letters JP after their names, standing for Justice of the Peace. The rest, the most serious charges such as rape and murder, which bear the longest sentences, are decided by juries, which as everyone knows are composed of a dozen randomly selected, often reluctant citizens with no expertise, no training and no remuneration.

You could say this is crazy. Or you could say it is an admirable act of national faith in the good sense of ordinary people. For centuries, the purpose of the jury system has been not only to involve citizens in the administration of justice at the highest level - a marvellously democratic aspiration - but also to provide a defence against the we-know-best instincts of the overmighty state. …