Saturday 16 December 2017

James McDermott: 12 angry men ... or anyone who is willing to show up

MONICA Piper said: "Juries scare me. I don't want to put my faith in the hands of 12 people who weren't smart enough to get out of jury duty." Recently, juries have been complaining to judges and judges have been complaining about juries. In Tralee, jurors complained that reduced Court Service funding of €12.50 for lunch meant they weren't offered tea or coffee after their meal. To add insult to injury, they also had to pay their own car parking fees. While nobody expects jurors to have Michelin-starred meals and concierge parking, it is in nobody's interests if they are not getting basic facilities in exchange for performing their public service. However, what if they are not up to the task of that service?

In a recent high-profile English case, a jury was discharged by the judge for the unusual reason that he did not think they understood what they were supposed to be doing. Vicky Pryce was charged with taking speeding points on behalf of her then husband, Chris Huhne. Mr Justice Sweeney discharged the jury after they forwarded him 10 questions that highlighted "absolutely fundamental deficits in understanding" on their part. Despite having sworn an oath to try the case solely based on the evidence presented in court, the jury felt the need to ask: "Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it?"

Still, at least the jury at Southwark Crown Court in submitting their questions showed that they were taking their task seriously, which could not have been said of a number of English juries in recent times. In 1994, a conviction for murder was quashed after several members of a jury had used a ouija board to contact the deceased, who helpfully spelt out the message "vote guilty". In 1998, a juror was discharged after he asked the judge for the date of birth of the accused to enable him to work out his star sign. And in 2011, a teenage student spent Christmas in jail after feigning illness to skip a day of jury service so he could travel to London with his mother to see the musical 'Chicago'.

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