Juries in criminal and civil cases

The development and independence of the jury

The notion of trials by jury has developed substantially over the years. In 1215, the Magna Carta included recognition that a person has the right to be trialled by ‘the lawful judgment of his peers’. By the middle of the 15th century, juries had become known as independent assessors and were notorious for their role as deciders of fact.

There have been many cases over the years where jury decisions have been challenged or overturned by the decision of the judge.

In Bushel’s Case (1670), it was decided that the jury were to be considered as sole arbitrators of fact and that the judge could not challenge their decisions.

A modern day jury

Today’s systems of jury say nothing while in the court room. They retire into a secluded room where they will discuss among themselves the facts of the case.

Once the jury go into the private room, they have no communication with anyone outside of that room, and any technology that may interfere with the secrecy of the jury, such as telephones, laptops, etc. will be removed until a decision is made, or they retire for the night.

Modern day use of the jury

The Criminal Law Act 1977 made a number of minor offences and driving offences summary only, thus removing the right to jury trial. A number of other cases have been made summary only since then. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 also allows trial by judge alone in the Crown Court where:

  • a serious risk of jury tampering exists; or
  • the case involves complex or lengthy financial and commercial arrangements.

The modern day jury is used in the following courts:

Crown Court: for matters concerning criminal indictment, eg, serious criminal offences such as murder manslaughter and rape. There will be a jury consisting of 12 members. Fifteen members will be called upon to complete jury service; of these, 12 will randomly be selected to hear the case.

High Court: cases involving defamation, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and cases alleging fraud. A jury of 12 members will be used.

County court: cases involving defamation, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and any cases alleging fraud. A jury of eight members will be used in these cases.

Coroners’ Court: death in prison; death as a result of an industrial accident; circumstances where a death has occurred and the health and safety of the public has been brought into question; and death while in police custody or as a result of an injury caused by a police officer in the execution of his duty.

Juries in criminal cases

The most common and important use of a jury today is in Crown Court where they decide on criminal matters that involve the necessary finding of either guilty or not guilty.

Jury trials amount for less than 1% of all criminal trials due to most cases being dealt with in magistrates’ court; of those cases that do proceed to Crown Court, approximately two-thirds will plead guilty.

Other cases that find their way to Crown Court may be discharged by the judge and therefore leave no need for a jury.

Juries in civil cases

Juries are only used in a limited number of civil cases. However, they have a dual role when they are used. The jury will decide upon the facts of the case to find out whether the claimant has proved his case or not. If they conclude that the claimant has won, they will then decide what damages are awarded and on what scale.

When are juries used in civil cases?

The County Courts Act 1984 sets out the following guidelines on when a jury should be used for a civil trial. Where the case involves:

  • libel or slander;
  • false imprisonment;
  • malicious prosecution;
  • fraud.

A case involving the above matters may still be refused a trial by jury if the judge believes the case, evidence or other matters are too complicated for a trial by jury.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.