Explain the role of juries in criminal trials.

Juries are seen as playing an important role in our legal system. Juries have been used as part of our legal system for more that one thousand years.

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Juries are seen as playing an important role in our legal system. Juries have been used as part of our legal system for more than one thousand years but it was not until trial by ordeal was done away with in 1215 that they became an integral part of our criminal justice system.  In the same year Magna Carta also formally acknowledged the principle of an individual’s right to trial by their peers. The jury we are now familiar with and whose role it is to “faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence” is relatively young. It is only over the last 300 years or so that a jury has become established which is as independent as we now see it and which does not have any influence on law making or any knowledge of the defendant. Set out below is the role of juries in criminal cases.

Juries are used in trials in the Crown Court.  The jurisdiction of the Crown Court provides for the hearing of more serious offences on indictment.  The offenders will have first appeared in the Magistrates’ Court and been committed or indicted to trial at the Crown Court.  If there is a not guilty plea there will be a jury trial. If a guilty plea is entered then there will be no need for a trial and the Judge will decide upon the appropriate sentence.

The jury is randomly selected from persons entered on the electoral register and they must not be involved in any way with the case.  They are required to make an informed decision about whether the accused is guilty or innocent.  The jury is told by the trial judge that they must base their decision upon the evidence put before them during the trial and not upon anything else, including things said outside of the court or anything they may have read.  The jury must therefore listen to the evidence but their role may also include being made aware of physical exhibits and photographs and in some complex cases may include accompanied visits to crime scenes.

Towards the end of the trial, and once all the evidence has been presented by both sides, it is the job of the trial judge to assist the jury in their task by summing up the evidence and directing them as to what the law is.

After the summing up, the jury are put in the hands of a jury bailiff who is sworn in and made aware of their duties by the trial judge.  The jury leaves the court and must retire to a jury room where they are required to deliberate and come to a decision as to whether the defendant is guilty or not.  The jury will deliberate in private.

Despite any direction by the trial judge about the law and the facts of the case at the end of the trial, one feature of the jury system is that the jury are free to make up their own minds, free from any outside influence and pressure. This has been demonstrated, over the years, on a number of occasions. Such decisions, which seem to fly in the face of the law or facts or both, have come to be known as 'perverse' verdicts. They serve to demonstrate the independence of the jury and are seen as a strength. These instances are rare so, although they can be used to support the argument that the jury system is 'flawed', they can also be welcomed as a timely reminder of the independence of the jury.

A clear example of a perverse verdict arose in the case of R v Randle and Pottle (1991) where the defendants, who were prison officers, were charged with helping a notorious spy to escape. The defendants did not deny what they had done at the time of their trial but explained why they had helped. They said they had acted on humanitarian grounds and it was because of the time that had elapsed between when the events alleged against Soviet spy George Blake were said to have taken place and the prosecution. The jury ignored the judge's direction to convict and acquitted them.

The subsequent inquiry into the jury system, known as the Auld Report, was made in 2002 and identified 'perverse' verdicts as a problem. One of the reports recommendations was that such decisions should be outlawed and should allow a right of appeal, in favour of the prosecution, to overturn a perverse verdict. Such measures have never been implemented.

As part of the trial judge’s direction to the jurors regarding what is required of them, he or she will explain that a unanimous decision is required. There are 12 jurors and this means that all of them must agree on the verdict.  Time will be allowed for the jury to reach a verdict.  In the event that the jury fail to agree and are unable to reach a verdict, the trial judge will give further guidance and may well direct that the court will accept a majority decision this is normally 11:1 or 10:2.

The trial judge will mention the basis upon which they should decide the case.  The responsibility for making out the case against the defendant is upon the prosecution. The jury must be satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty before they can reach such a verdict.  The modern equivalent is that they must be sure’ that the accused did what he or she is accused of.  

A jury foreman will be identified and selected by the members of the jury.  The foreman or spokesperson will announce the verdict in open court.   The jury does not have to give any explanation or reasoning for their decision.

At this stage the jury will have done what has been asked of them.  The trial judge is likely to thank them for their work and dismiss them.  In the event of a particularly complex or difficult case the trial judge may direct that the members of the jury are relieved of further jury service for a specified period of time.

The jury are also reminded that their work, including their deliberations and details of how they may have voted, is to be kept private and confidential.

Juries have a more limited role in civil cases.  It is probably fair to say that it is only in exceptional cases that a jury is used in civil cases.

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This essay will give you plenty of information if you are currently studying juries and their role in criminal cases, as part of your law course.

The use of juries in Crown Court trials is discussed including a 'guilty plea'; random selection; the need for the juries decision to be based on the facts of the case; guilt or innocence; summing up the evidence and the fact that deliberations of the jury are in private.

Perverse verdicts are covered and the case of R v Randle and Pottle (1991) is raised and the effect of the decision made by the jury in this case is explained.

With this essay to refer to and the links provided on this page, you will be able to improve your knowledge of this topic. To find out more about juries check out our other essays listed opposite.


(Word Count 1079)


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