A British judge was very unhappy with the jury in a high-profile trial last week:
Vicky Pryce, the ex-wife of the disgraced cabinet minister Chris Huhne, faces a retrial next week over taking speeding points for him because a jury failed to reach a verdict, after suffering what the judge described as “absolutely fundamental deficits in understanding”.
The Guardian seemed to concur:
Mr Justice Sweeney discharged the panel of eight women and four men following more than 15 hours of deliberations, and a day after they submitted 10 questions that indicated they had not grasped the basics of their task,
but assembled a set of professionals defending the jury institution:
Commenting on the collapse of the trial, Richard Atkinson, chairman of Law Society’s criminal law committee, said: “The comments of the judge that this was unique in his 30 year career reflects my own experiences. I have not come across this before … [Juries] are a very good safeguard.”
Lord Macdonald, a former director of public prosecution, told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “I don’t believe this is a general problem but I do think we should allow a bit more research into the way juries go about their tasks … If you have a better understanding of that then perhaps it’s easier to frame directions to juries that they will follow and understand.”
Lord Woolf, a former lord chief justice, added: “I wouldn’t rush into doing anything, I would think about it … Some very carefully organised, responsible research may be a good thing, but it would have to be treated with great care.”
One of the leading academics who has carried out research into the way juries work agreed that the Pryce situation involved a complex case and a “very exceptional jury”. Prof Cheryl Thomas, of University College, London, said: “More than 99% of the time juries reach a verdict. A hung jury is extremely rare. There are very few lessons from this case.
“All the evidence I have from a decade of research is that the overwhelming majority take their job very seriously.”
A report by Prof Cheryl Thomas, of University College, London,
pointed out that in 2007 that then lord chief justice, “Lord Phillips, publicly called for legal directions to juries to be simplified” and suggested “restructuring jury trials to aid juror comprehension”.
Of great concern is “improper use of the internet by jurors”:
One of the main jury issues that has worried legal experts in the past year is the ease with which jurors can consult the internet and the danger online research presents in terms of undermining evidence in court.
Thomas’s current research, due to be published this spring, examines how to prevent improper use of the internet by jurors and how to improve their decision-making. She said: “There’s legitimate use of the internet: for example, how to get to court. But it can become a grey area. Is it illegal to look for information about the judge? No.
“Jurors get themselves into trouble when they actively research information about a defendant. They should also not be looking up information about the law or the issue [in the case]. It’s more tempting to disobey the rules … because of the internet.”