20 June 2009

More English jury delusions...

Apologies for the yawning silence which has consumed this space recently. The Tyrant Work has been mercilessly been applying her goad, leaving me without enough puff for blogging. That said, however, the beneficent patron goddess of the Weekend has laid low the gurnsome monster of Labour, at least for the moment. Hot air thus replenished, to the mischief.

And let us begin with a series of headlines one might have encountered this week, revealing the press to be filled with ignorant fuckwits…

BBC: First Trial without jury approved

Independent: First trial to be heard without jury approved

Guardian: Court allows first juryless criminal trial

Telegraph: First ever trial without jury to be held because of alleged nobbling

Times: First criminal trial without a jury for 400 years

Quoth the BBC report, “Only in Northern Ireland, in the so-called Diplock Courts, could trials be held without a jury, until a recent change in the law in England and Wales.” Further, they scribble that “No-jury trials are a more regular feature of justice elsewhere in the UK. Diplock courts have been used in Northern Ireland since 1973 to combat jury intimidation by paramilitary groups. And some criminal cases in Scotland are heard by a sheriff in the Sheriff Court or by a bench of one or more lay justices in the District Court."

What, what? Shocking headline news story! First non-jury trial ever, horror, awe, Magna Carta! The lamp that shows there freedom lives sputtering! Erosion of “Our” age old liberties!

But… er … its total fiction.

Instead of covering the actually interesting part of this story – that it is the first case in the Crown Court where there will be trial by judge alone under the Criminal Justice Act of 2003, the English press has indulged itself in another one of its occasional bouts of frenetic, onion-squeezing delusion.

Take the dusty pages of the Criminal Statistics England and Wales 2007: Statistic Bulletin published by the Ministry of Justice. I imagine it might come as something of a surprise to the dazed statisticians to realise that the number of juryless trials they were recording in 2007 apparently didn’t happen. Per this 2007 report, 1.78 million offenders were found guilty or cautioned in England and Wales that year. 2007 saw the “number of defendants due to appear for trial at the Crown Court rose in 2007 to 83,200 compared with 76,800 in 2006. Of these, the percentage that plead guilty at Crown Court is 68%. As the Bulletin notes, only “about 5% of all those proceeded against are dealt with at the Crown Court” (p 17). Here we have a few definitional anxieties around what is meant by “dealt with” and some complexities around how the Magistrates Courts' role in committing defendants for trial is recorded. The clear-eyed facts and pithy detail of these statistics are thus complex to tease out.

However, we can say this, absolutely. Magistrates Courts sit with no jury. Crown Courts do. However, almost 70% of those “dealt with” by the Crown Court will never see the twelve crania of a gathered jury, because they throw in the towel and admit their guilt. Thus, even if we take the 5% figure as a maximum of those potentially triable by jury – the actual number of contested trials resolved by juries will be much lower than that.

The media coverage might be harmless dreamland cuckoo-spotting, did it not instil wholly fictional images of the reality of criminal justice in England and Wales. Indeed, in the context of a 90% + figure already where criminal matters are resolved sans jury, the press look madly ill-informed, frothily idiotic. If we were to take them on their word, the whole edifice of English justice is already an inauthentic, Magna Carta repudiating project in tyranny. One might have thought that if one was so keen on juries, one would be more offended by the 1.73 million persons in 2007 who did not receive the benefit of their judgement, than shriek and howl about a solitary, exceptional case.

In the context of my previous analysis of the Scottish system here and here, and the associated statistical uncertainties, the BBC’s paltry, ill-informed suggestion that “some criminal cases in Scotland are heard by a sheriff in the Sheriff Court or by a bench of one or more lay justices in the District Court” is laughable. Take the 2006/07 figures. That “some” was made up 121,820 trials out of a 126,724 total, or 96% of the total. Presumably we're using the work "some" here in the sense that "some" people break wind during the course of their life, or that William Hague has lost "some" of his hair.

Up for slipshod examination of known facts, or the inflation and distortion of reality? Are you suffused with a breezy confidence when reporting issues you only dimly comprehend, matched with a sloppy lack of interest in finding out the truth by research?

Journalism may be the career for you ...


  1. Some years ago an English friend of mine (then just recently moved to live in Scotland) had an acrimonious run-in with a traffic warden and received a parking ticket.

    He told me that he was so annoyed by what had happened that he was 'definitely going to opt for trial by jury'.

    My hilarity at the thought of the Scottish lieges officiating in a parking case was only matched by the knowledge that similarly trivial cases WERE tried by jury south of the Border, complete with counsel on each side.

  2. Ha! No doubt this brave English yeoman felt rather hard done by as he looked up into the bored, dry face of the sheriff and scrutinised the thinly-populated courtroom surrounding him. The Lady Chatterley Trial, it ain't.