Thursday 6 May 2010

No justice without the public

Why jury trials should be a political issue

Last week both the Labour and Tory parties indicated their intention to cut down on the number of criminal trials going before a jury, by extending the power of magistrates to hear more serious cases. Their sentencing powers are to be extended, increasing the maximum custodial sentence they are able to impose from six months to twelve months, allowing them to hear more cases that would usually be heard in front of a jury in the Crown Court. Both parties justified the extension on the basis that it would provide for greater ‘expediency’ in the administration of justice.

The change marks the end of a grim year for the jury trial. The first UK trial by single judge took place in March, resulting in the conviction of the two defendants, one of whom is now likely to spend the rest of his life in jail. The event passed with little discussion from any political party and has not received even a passing mention in any of the televised debates. The public’s role in the administration of justice is simply not an issue at this election. However, it is important to recognise that the absence of discussion around the jury trial is only indicative of a wider gap in political discourse. It is not only the jury trial that is being ignored at this election: it is freedom itself.

No party has made a case for what constitutes a free society. In fact, the only discussions on freedom have taken place through the prism of economics. Whilst the Lib Dems have promised to scrap the database state and the ID cards scheme, their plans are justified wholly on the basis of ‘efficiency savings’. This has nothing to do with promoting freedom from the state and self-determination. Limiting fundamental freedoms like the jury trial in the name of ‘expediency’ makes perfect sense in the context of this election because all three political parties have been incapable of making any argument in favour of freedom for its own sake.

When the only motor driving political debate is the management of economic crises, it becomes easy to portray the jury trial as a needless expense. In fact, the jury provide a vital communication between the black letter of the law and the values of the society over which it is to dictate. A jury has the power to acquit in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt and to convict in the face of overwhelming evidence of innocence. These powers demonstrate that the task of the jury trial is not simply to determine whether or not an individual committed a crime, but whether or not the jury, as representatives of society, think the person in the dock should be deprived of their liberty.

A magistrate cannot make such a judgement sitting alone. Instead, as professionals, they must deliver the most accurate verdict they can. The role of a magistrate is of a fact finder and is undertaken with impartiality and with disregard to social norms and values. This is what makes them effective at trying the most straightforward and mundane crimes, and the best people to dish out low level punishments.

But when a defendant faces a lengthy jail sentence on conviction, the decision as to verdict becomes a social judgement as to whether the defendant deserves to remain in society. Because magistrates cannot properly represent society it is wrong to demand that they make these judgements. This is why the jury trial is a fundamental freedom: because it guarantees that the administration of justice remains a social as well as a legal process.

Although the measures announced this week in relation to the jury trial are not exactly momentous on their own, they are illustrative of how discussions on freedom during this election have taken place through the framework of economic cuts. The economy used to be a means to achieving our vision of the society we wanted to live in. Unless we put freedom back on the agenda for its own sake, we risk losing our stake in that project once recovery is secured.

Sign a public petition in defence of jury trials.

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