The Role of Juries in the Justice System

By Erzinclioglu, Zakaria | Contemporary Review, June 1999 | Go to article overview

The Role of Juries in the Justice System


Erzinclioglu, Zakaria, Contemporary Review


The governments and judiciaries of English-speaking countries, especially Britain and the United States, frequently proclaim that one of their fundamental beliefs is the rule of law, with the implication that other countries, although possessing legal systems, are not quite as devoted to this notion as they are themselves. One of the most frequently invoked facts in support of this claim is the use of juries in many trials in Britain and the USA. The unquestioned assumption is that thai by jury is superior to trial by a judge or panel of judges. Yet last month the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, announced that the Government wished to abolish the right of a defendant to choose a trial by jury for relatively minor offences. The Government hopes this would result in a higher rate of convictions as well as a saving of [pounds]100 million. However, Mr Straw's proposals have roused fury among civil liberty groups and especially among the ethnic minorities.

Is trial by jury superior to any other kind? In other words, is it more likely to allow the truth to emerge and justice be done? Before answering this question, let us consider the traditional arguments for and against juries.

In favour of juries it is held that twelve heads are better than one and that the collective intellectual and moral power of a jury is more than the sum of the abilities of its individual members. It is also claimed that the jury system is less amenable to corrupt influences, it being much harder to bribe twelve people than one judge. Also, the jury allows a certain flexibility in the interpretation of the law, juries being more likely to be more concerned with the spirit, than with the letter, of the law.

Against these advantages is set the assertion that jury members are, in general, less able people than judges and lawyers. They usually have little knowledge of the law and, unlike legally trained people, they are not accustomed to evaluate evidence objectively and to arrive at unbiased conclusions on the basis of it. Moreover, difficult evidence, such as some scientific evidence, is sometimes deemed inadmissible in court, simply because it is felt that the jury would not understand it.

Two other points about juries have been used to argue both in favour of their use and against it. The first point is that people selected to sit on juries are usually inexperienced in life as a whole. Lawyers and doctors are excused jury service. In practice, most professional people, like scientists, are also excused, because they can almost always claim that absence from their duties would cause difficulties for others. The result is that most juries are made up of people who are not used to tackling important problems on a day-to-day basis.

However, it has been argued that inexperience is not necessarily a bad thing, on the basis of what may be called the 'from-the-mouths-of-babes' principle. Inexperienced people may often 'see' the truth more clearly and more readily than people whose minds may be cluttered with laws, rules and conventional ways of doing things. The second point is that justice in a jury system is not, in fact, the rule of law, but the rule of men. A judge would arrive at a verdict on the basis of the strict interpretation of the law (or so it is believed), but ordinary men and women would be more likely to be swayed by pity for the victim or the accused, by their physical appearance (especially if it is a woman), by racial, religious or political prejudice, by local bigotry and so forth. The behaviour of the jury in the criminal trial of O. J. Simpson is a case in point.

Against this, some people have argued that juries can be seen to be the rule of men, not of the law, only in a very superficial sense, since juries are part of the legal system and can be a safeguard against any possible excesses that might happen, if the law was applied without the humane and civilised forces of pity and compassion. …

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