In the English criminal justice system, juries have existed for over a thousand years now. Since 1215 they are the usual method of trying criminal cases, and are considered as a really important institution in the English criminal justice process. However, in terms of statistics, trial by jury is suffering from an important decline: indeed more than 95 per cent of criminal cases are now dealt by criminal courts without the intervention of a jury. Offences that can be judged by a jury are: indictable-only offences, they are the most serious offences and must be tried on indictment at the Crown Court. Furthermore, a majority of the cases heard in the Crown Court which represent almost sixty per cent of the cases, involve in fact a defendant pleading guilty without any jury being needed. And even when a jury is sworn in to hear a case, the jury itself may not be called upon to judge on whether the defendant is guilty or not, for in many cases the trial judge will direct the jury to acquit.
It seems thus that jury are not really needed anymore nowadays to help finding if a defendant is guilty or not, although they are still the object of a peculiar attention. It can not be denied that there are advantages to use juries in the criminal justice system, but one can wonder if they do not hold a symbolic position rather than essential. I will thus see in the first part the advantages juries have over other ways of judging, and in a second part their disadvantages and whether their role is essential or not.
[...] Eventually, it appears that the jury system is really important in the English criminal justice process. It is an ancient system, that works quite well even though it has its flaws, as does every system. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that some improvements could be made so that the main problems it causes could vanish, such as for instance the problem of potential racism among members of a jury. However, jury system holds such a peculiar place in the English system from a symbolic point of view, that it is probably quite hard to change it. [...]
[...] Furthermore, it has also been proved that the attractiveness of a defendant can be an asset for him. A study of Sigall and Ostrove in 1975 shows that the more physically attractive a defendant is, the less likely he is going to receive a harsh sentence. But attractiveness is not the only factor in a defendant that can influence a jury: also if he holds a high position in the society, if he is rich or famous, if he comes from an excellent background etc, juries will find more easily reasons to acquit him. [...]
[...] Since the Bushell's case in 1670, where a judge tried to influence jurors over convicting Quaker activists of unlawful assembly by resuming their deliberations without any food or drink and even committing them to prison, juries are said to be the “sole arbiters of fact” and therefore judges can not challenge their decision. The case R v McKenna in 1960 reaffirm this rule even more vividly: in this case a judge threatened his jury to lock them during the night if they did not reach a verdict within ten minutes. [...]
[...] Despite some of the advantages the non-legal training of the jurors, it is also quite a disadvantage. Indeed, as they do not have any experience, jurors can tend to take into account for instance evidence that they were previously told to ignore because precisely of its inadequity or unlegality. Secondly, with the raise of the medias since the last decades, they now have a huge influence over citizens. Indeed, the media coverage of a sensitive or controversial case can easily influence jurors. [...]
[...] In former centuries juries notoriously defied the law to save defendants from the gallows. In modern times the power is used, sometimes to general acclaim, sometimes to general annoyance” (Professor Zander). This also rejoins one of the main criticism made aginst the jury system: the fact that they seem to acquit too many defendants. Figures show that about two thirds of the defendants judged by a jury are found not guilty. However, every aspect of the trial is not taken into account in those figures: a lot of cases are discharged by the judge, a lot of acquitals are directed by the judge and when in the end these cases are excluded, it appears that only thirty-one per cent of the cases are judged not guilty by the jurors. [...]
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