Right to a Jury Trial

What is a Jury Trial  

At the foundation of the UK law is the notion that anyone who is accused of a crime should have the right to be tried in front of their peers. Essentially it is a process whereby 12 individuals randomly selected are put in the court environment to determine the facts of the case and to decide, either unanimously or by majority of 10 people whether the accused individual is guilty or not of the alleged crimes.  

Reasons for a Jury Trial

Jury trials happen where cases are heard in crown court and are not used as part of a magistrate’s trial. In civil trials juries may be used in certain limited cases such as fraud or defamation where public perceptions are relevant. It is commonly thought that jury trials are there as a way to provide a check and balance on state power and in order to ensure that an individual is being tested based on the reasonable standards of the public and not those of the legal profession.

Eligibility of Jurors

Only certain people may be eligible for being jurors. Anyone who is eligible to be called as a juror may be called. There are circumstances in which they may then be released but these are limited to extreme situations in order to ensure that selection is as varied as possible.

Eligibility criteria includes those between the ages of 18 and 70 and been resident in the UK for at least 5 years since the age of 13. The individually must be mentally stable and not disqualified in any way. Disqualification issues include being on bail for certain crimes and being within a certain time period of being called for jury service. Pre booked important events such as holidays or weddings will also allow an individual to be discharged.

Challenging the Jury and their Conduct

Initially a jury in waiting is called to a court at a certain location. Although there are no geographic constraints as to where the jury can be called from, in reality they are called to their local court. From this larger group a group of 12 people are called at random from that jury in waiting to be the main jury.

Each member of the jury then needs to affirm an oath that they will give a true verdict based on their religion.

The composition of the jury can be challenged by either the defence or prosecution based on any of the issues of disqualification or reasons such as being personally known to someone involved in the trial. It is possible that the jury can be discharged by the judge either as individuals or in their entirety where it is necessary in the eyes of the judge. A jury may continue for as long as it has the minimum practicable number of jurors left.

Civil and Criminal Juries

Criminal Juries

Criminal juries are the ones most commonly thought of when it comes to a jury trial. Juries are brought in at crown court level and are often part of the decision making process when a defendant is deciding whether or not to have their trial heard at magistrate or crown court level. It is generally considered less likely to be convicted with a jury trial making it a good option for many. However it is often also thought that a crown court trial is more stressful so it can be a matter of personal choice.

Civil Juries

Juries are rarely used in civil cases and there are calls to remove their use entirely. Currently they are only used in cases where an element of public opinion is important for example in the case of defamation where it is necessary to show that the claimant was lowered in the estimation of the public. In reality the cost of using a jury is so high that the use of juries in civil cases is likely to be abolished entirely in the UK in the near future.

Reasons for a juror to be discharged from service:

  • The individual is in hospital or scheduled to attend a hospital appointment during the course of the trial

  • The individual regularly visits a medical practitioner that could impede on their ability to undertake jury service

  • They are under section 7 of the Mental Health Act 1983

  • The judge feels that the individual is not capable of managing their affairs or property due to mental deficiency

  • There are any other medical reasons for discharge

  • An important frankly event such as a holiday or wedding has been pre-booked

  • Urgent work conditions prevent the individual from attending jury service

  • They have undertaken jury service in the last two years

  • They are a member of the armed services

Is the right to be tried by a jury now at risk?

The end of March 2010 was the first time in the UK for over 400 years that a criminal trial was held without a jury.  A trial was heard by judge sitting alone and the defendants were convicted and given long gaol sentences.  The decision to hold a trial without a jury was not taken lightly and it was required after the collapse of previous trial because of jury tampering.