How the English Legal System Works - The Jury

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Explain briefly the origins of trial by jury.

Trial by jury in the English legal system has a long history, and some form of jury trial can be traced back to before the Norman Conquest. Although the jury is much less important than it was (particularly in civil cases, where use of a jury is largely limited to defamation actions) historically it has been seen as a safeguard of the individual against the power of the state.

What is the purpose of the trial jury?

Juries are used in both civil and criminal actions to weigh up the evidence and decide what are the true facts of the case. The judge directs them as to what is the relevant law, and the jury applies the facts to the law and reaches a verdict.

The decision cannot be disputed and is arrived at on the basis the jury chooses (e.g. according to its conscience). The judge then decides on the appropriate sentence. In civil cases, a jury decides on the amount of damages.

When is a civil jury used?

It is rare to have a jury in a civil action in England and Wales. A jury is only allowed, at the discretion of the court, in:

• cases involving fraud,
• libel and slander (i.e. defamation actions),
• malicious prosecution,
• false imprisonment

Of these situations, juries are most frequently used in defamation cases. The right to a jury is qualified, even in the above cases, if the judge considers that the case requires investigation of documents etc. which cannot conveniently be made with a jury. In other civil cases in the Queen's Bench Division, the judge can exercise his discretion to order trial by jury, but this is rarely done, and normally personal injury cases should be tried by a judge alone.

When is a criminal jury used?

A jury is most often found in the Crown Court. Only approximately 3% of all criminal cases reach the Crown Court. Of these, less than a third are jury trials, as there are many pleas of guilty without a trial taking place.

Who is eligible to sit on a jury?

Apart from people who are ineligible, disqualified or excused, anyone who is on the electoral register aged between 18 and 70, and who has been ordinarily resident in the UK for five years since the age of 13, is qualified to serve on a jury. Jurors are randomly selected from the electoral register, and a Jury Central Summoning Bureau has been established in recent years to undertake this task.

Who is ineligible to sit on a jury?

Some people are ineligible for jury service, principally those who are suffering from a mental disorder. Members of the clergy and those involved with the administration of justice (e.g. solicitors, barristers, judges, magistrates, police officers and probation officers) were previously also ineligible, but such ineligibility was removed following implementation of the relevant provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Anyone who has served a term of imprisonment of five years or more, or who has been sentenced to imprisonment or a suspended sentence of imprisonment or a community order within the last ten years.

Certain people may be excused from jury service. Previously, those such as members of the medical and legal professions, MPs and members of the armed forces, as well as those over the age of 65, were excused as of right. However, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 altered the law such that excusal from (or deferral of) jury service is now only possible on the basis of good reason.

Who may challenge jurors for cause?

Both the prosecution and defence can challenge either individual members or the whole panel of jurors for cause. The trial judge will determine the validity of the challenge. In addition, the prosecution has a right to 'stand by' (i.e. make a provisional challenge against the membership of the jury). Vetting of jury members can exceptionally take place in cases involving national security or terrorism under guidelines issued by the Attorney- General. The criminal records of jury members may also be checked in order to identify disqualified people. Otherwise, the random nature of jury selection is preserved.

What happens to a jury at the start of a criminal case in the Crown Court?

A court official will choose at random from those in the waiting room a group of 15 people, to be taken into the courtroom. In the courtroom, the court clerk will, again at random, choose 12 people, who will sit in the jury box. Each person will be sworn in as a juror, taking an oath or affirmation that they will honestly try the case according to the evidence.

Before being sworn in, the prosecution and defence may challenge a juror's right to serve on the jury. Either side may challenge for cause: the main grounds for challenge are that the juror is ineligible, disqualified or biased. The side challenging must give a reason. A juror must declare if he or she knows anyone taking part in the trial.

What happens In the jury room?

After the judge sums up, an usher will escort the jury to the jury room. While in the jury room, they will not be able to communicate with anyone except the usher (who is referred to as the jury bailiff). A juror must never discuss the case outside the jury room (even after the trial is over). To do so would be contempt of court.

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