Juries or Judges: Who should decide your fate?

July 14, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

On Tuesday 23 June the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC indicated that legislation could be passed that would allow trial without a jury in England and Wales.

What does this mean?

There is and has been for some years, an increasing backlog of cases in the English and Welsh courts. Now that we are in the midst of a global pandemic, the likelihood of being able to clear that backlog looks increasingly dubious. 

When COVID-19 first caused havoc with the day-to-day lives of UK residents, Lord Burnett of Maldon said that a review of the arrangements in all courtrooms was called for. A decision was taken to pause jury trials for a short time to enable appropriate precautions to be put in place. All jury trials were temporarily suspended and very few have restarted so far. One of the suggestions  to tackle the thousands of cases building up is to legislate that less serious crimes should be tried in crown courts before a judge, without a jury.

What's the big picture effect?

From a defendant’s perspective, there is value in being judged by a group of peers because it provides a separation between the role of the judge and the ultimate verdict. Judge-only trials (known as Diplock Courts) were introduced under the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 to be used for political and terrorism-related cases during the increasing troubles in the area. Trials in the area include those of claimed terrorist organisations and the murder of police. However, some defendants are still fighting appeals; it could be suggested they might not have had to if they had been tried by a jury in the first instance. Amnesty International’s findings arising from these trials refer to concerns about altering the role of a judge in serious criminal cases to “both the umpire over the proceedings and tribunal of fact”. This reduces safeguards against subjectivity, particularly in judges who have become “case-hardened” (consistently grappling with serious criminal cases causes you to lose some sensitivity to the issues over time).

Juries in the UK are not required to provide reasons for their verdicts. This ambiguity is not out of line with the Article 6 (ECHR) right to a fair trial. Judges, on the other hand, are required to give reasons for their decisions. Whilst this may give rise to a greater number of applications to the court of appeal for those that think they have been wrongly convicted, the statistics from Northern Ireland showed that their success rate on appeal was half that of those convicted by juries. 

The question for the Lord Chief Justice, the Lord Chancellor and others is whether there is just cause to finally erode the system of trial by jury that was envisioned in 1215. Or would judge-only trials only exacerbate the harmful disconnect between the judiciary and the public and erode the rights of a defendant to a fair and just trial?

Report written by Josie Laidman

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