Thursday, October 28, 2010

jury's out

For certain types of criminal offences, the accused has the right to elect trial by jury at a crown court even though the magistrates have decided that it is perfectly suitable to be heard in a magistrates court (summary trial).

Obviously the accused is not opting for crown court because the sentence, if convicted, is likely to be higher, which it is. He (or she) is thinking, or more likely has been (wrongly) advised by a lawyer, that there is a better chance of acquittal. There isn’t ! Not if the trial goes ahead.

What there is though is a better chance of a subjective or prejudiced verdict, e.g. from a jury made up of like minded people to the accused or one largely comprised of those who really don’t care whether the result is guilty or not. A more objective and well thought through decision is much more likely from three well trained and experienced magistrates. They have to give full reasons for the verdict reached in all trials even when the offence is at the lowest end of the seriousness scale, whereas a jury can return a verdict of guilty in a murder trial without having to give a single reason; their decision can be made on instinct, like/dislike of the defendant, or the performances of the legal advocates.

The other hope from electing crown court is that the key prosecution witness(es) will not turn up to give evidence, as the thought of a higher court trial can be more intimidating and upsetting for witnesses than the relatively user-friendly magistrates court. There is no reason to believe that a better quality of justice is dispensed at the home of the wigs and gowns.

The right to elect trial by jury should be removed. It is an anachronism, an anomaly and a wholly irrational feature of the criminal justice system. And, with a crown court trial costing about ten times as much as a summary trial, it is very expensive too.



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