“All parties in the case of Smith to Court 4” the tannoy goes. The Court assemble. It is, let us say, a murder case and there is a verdict. It has occupied the court for a couple of weeks, but the outcome of the next ten minutes will reverberate for the people involved for many years to come.
The jury will say one or two words. ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not Guilty’. Imagine it is guilty – Mr Smith will spend the next 15, 20, maybe more, years in prison. During that time, it is likely that he will consider the trial and the moment of verdict. Whatever the outcome of the trial, people will never know the reasons that the jury came to the verdict that they did. Is that right?
Why do they not give reasons?
There are various reasons for this. It partly stems from the battles to ensure the independence of the jury (Bushel’s case being the most famous example) from political pressure. A jury is entitled to return any verdict they want (regardless of the evidence) which would be undermined if they had to give reasons.
Jurors take an oath or affirmation and we have to trust them to be true to their oath and follow the directions of the Judge. The fact that there are 12 jurors is a check on any individual juror acting in an impermissible way.
Also, there is a suspicion in some people’s minds that to allow reasons to be given would give rise to a huge number of appeals.
Isn’t this a breach of the European Convention?
No. Whilst there is a general rule that courts should give reasons for their decisions, this has been held by the ECHR not to apply to juries and that the current system in England and Wales is compliant with Art 6.
This was confirmed was recently in Taxquet v Belgium (2012) 54 EHRR 26 : “the Convention does not require jurors to give reasons for their decision and that Article 6 does not preclude a defendant from being tried by a lay jury even where reasons are not given for the verdict“. This is provided that the other safeguards (such as that the jury are properly directed) are observed.
Well, if you’re worried I suppose you can always ask the jury afterwards why they decided the way they did?
No. It is strictly forbidden to “to obtain, disclose or solicit any particulars of statements made, opinions expressed, arguments advanced or votes cast by members of a jury in the course of their deliberations in any legal proceedings.” (s8(1) Contempt of Court Act 1981).
This doesn’t just apply to newspapers. Academics are not permitted to. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Court of Appeal is not either. This is so even where a juror has volunteered (after the trial) that the verdict was arrived at by impermissible reasons. The only exception is where it relates to matters outside the jury room (in R v Young, where the jury in a murder trial used a Ouija Board to allegedly contact the murder victim, the appeal was allowed as this was extraneous to the jury’s deliberations).
Is this fair? How do you know if a verdict is a proper one?
We don’t know. It is a difficult question with good arguments each way. Personally, I used to be opposed to jury’s giving reasons, but I’ve changed my mind on this. In the absence of evidence that juries do approach their task properly, I think there is a strong case for asking for reasons, or at the least, allowing full investigation of any irregularities after the verdict.
But how does the Judge know what the jury think of the case if s/he has to sentence?
As much as possible the aim is tailor the indictment to provide for this – for example if the allegation is robbery with a gun, then whilst it is not strictly necessary to charge the possession of a firearm, it is good practice to do so to ensure that the jury were sure of the presence of the weapon.
The Judge can, during the summing up, ask the jury to give further information about a verdict but this is extremely unusual and may now be completely impermissible (the only exception would be where manslaughter is left to the jury on different basis, as an alternative to murder).