Right to a Jury Trial

What is a Jury Trial?

The right to a trial by jury dates back centuries, even before it was enshrined in law by the Magna Carta which stated that a freeman should not be imprisoned without the lawful judgment of his peers.

An important principle of UK law is that anyone accused of a crime should have the right to be tried in front of their peers. Today, this means 12 individuals are randomly selected to hear the evidence in a criminal case, determine the facts of the case, and to decide whether the accused is guilty or not guilty of the alleged crimes.

In practice, not every defendant has the right to a jury trial. For instance, individuals charged with minor offences are tried by magistrates.

Jury trials take placein the Crown Court to try the more serious criminal cases. Juries are also used in limited civil cases such as fraud or defamation where public perceptions are relevant.

Bring tried by jury in the Crown Court

Indictable offences where the defendant pleads not guilty (ie, serious offences) are always tried by jury in the Crown Court (except in very rare occasions).

Either way offences can be tried either in the Crown Court or in the Magistrates’ Court. Sometimes, the magistrates decide to send the case to Crown Court for jury trial. In other cases, the defendant can choose to be tried by jury in the Crown Court. The potential benefit to the accused opting for jury trial is that it is considered less likely to be convicted by a jury than in the Magistrates’ Court. On the other hand, a Crown Court trial is more stressful. It is a decision to be made on the circumstances of the defendant and the case.

Eligibility of jurors

Not everyone is eligible for jury service, and anyone who is eligible may be called. There are limited circumstances in which they may then be released, because of the need to ensure that the jury selection is as varied as possible.

Eligibility criteria includes those between the ages of 18 and 70 who have been resident in the UK for at least 5 years since the age of 13. The individual must be mentally stable and not disqualified in any way. Reasons for disqualification 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. Certain professionals are also ineligible, including solicitors and barristers.

Being called for jury service

If you are called to jury service, you will be called to the Crown 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 Crown Court. From a relatively large group of potential jurors, a group of 12 will be called at random from that ‘jury in waiting’ to be the jury in a trial.

Each member of the jury will then need to swear an oath, or give an affirmation that they will faithfully try the defendant and give a true verdict according to the evidence.

Challenging a jury

The composition of a jury can be challenged by either the defence or prosecution based on any of the conditions for disqualification; or reasons such as being personally known to someone involved in the trial, or other potential conflicts. A juror, or even the whole jury, canbe discharged by the judge where it is deemed necessary. A jury may continue to hear a trial for as long as it has the minimum practicable number of jurors left.

Reasons for discharge of a juror

Typical reasons why a juror may be discharged from the jury include:

  • They are in hospital or scheduled to attend a hospital appointment during the course of the trial
  • They regularly visit a doctor and this could impede their ability to undertake jury service
  • They are subject to section 7 of the Mental Health Act 1983
  • The judge believes they are not capable of managing their affairs or property due to mental deficiency
  • There are any other medical reasons for discharge
  • An important event such as a holiday or wedding has been pre-booked
  • Urgent work conditions prevent them from attending jury service
  • They have undertaken jury service in the last two years
  • They are a member of the armed services of another list occupation that means they are ineligible