Melanie Phillips

21 February 2013

Do we need IQ tests for juries?

Published in: Daily Mail

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By discharging the jury which had failed to reach even a majority verdict, the judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, did not hide his astonishment and dismay at the way it had behaved.

On Tuesday, the jurors had presented him with a list of ten questions which revealed that they simply did not have a clue about what they had heard as evidence, what they had been told by himself or indeed what they were supposed to be doing there at all.

For example, they asked for a definition of reaching a verdict ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. This was despite the fact that the judge had already given them guidance on this in writing.

Mr Justice Sweeney effectively threw up his hands in despair, saying that these were ‘ordinary English words’ that he could not define any further.

Bafflingly, they asked whether a wife’s religious conviction would make her feel that she had no option but to obey her husband. But since Vicky Pryce’s religious beliefs had not even been mentioned, this was clearly totally irrelevant to the case.

Equally perplexingly, they asked whether the defendant had an obligation to present a defence. In reply, the judge reminded them he had told them that the defendant did not have to prove anything at all.

Most extraordinary of all, they asked whether they could reach a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and had no facts or evidence to support it.

Since a criminal trial is no more or less than a trial of the evidence, such a question revealed a fundamental lack of understanding of what a criminal trial actually is.

No wonder the judge said that some of these questions had shown a ‘fundamental deficit in understanding’ of the jury’s role, and that in 30 years of criminal trials he had not come across anything similar.

The jury’s questions open up a deeply worrying vista. Dating back to the Magna Carta in 1215, the jury system has been at the heart of our criminal justice system.

It is the historic guarantor of our liberties that people accused of serious crimes should be judged by a jury of their peers. That right has been fiercely fought for, and robustly defended during those periods of our history when it has been threatened by over-weening governments.

The tradition is believed to have its origins in Anglo Saxon custom, which dictated that an accused could be acquitted if enough people came forward to swear his innocence.

The fact that these are ordinary people, chosen more or less at random from the public, is considered rightly to be a bulwark against abuses of legal or judicial authority.

True, there have long been concerns that juries are not sophisticated enough to cope with highly complicated trials such as fraud cases. But the short trial of Vicky Pryce was hardly a complicated case.

The judge issued his guidance to the jury in clear English. And yet these jurors clearly failed to understand what he had said.

Of course it would be wrong to draw sweeping conclusions from just one trial, but it is difficult to deny that this one has exposed a breathtaking level of ignorance and stupidity.

Inevitably, the question will be asked whether the jury system is breaking down because some of the public are no longer adequate to the challenge of understanding even basic English, let alone the fundamental rudiments of a trial.

We are not allowed to know much about the jurors in a trial, so we can only speculate about the make-up of this particular panel.

Nevertheless, one is forced to conclude that this most deeply alarming development is the result of changes in British society for the worse – a breakdown in education standards, a rise in the number of people for whom English is not their first language, and a chronic inability to understand how institutions of this country operate.

So what on earth can be done to preserve our precious jury system?

In less enlightened times, the right to sit on a jury was restricted to the property-owning classes on the basis that the poor were considered too inadequate to sit in judgment.

Such a restriction now would rightfully be regarded as abhorrent and a step back from the democracy for which so many fought so long and hard.

But maybe things have reached such a pass that there is a case for some kind of basic testing of jurors’ cognitive abilities. Because otherwise the pressure from those who have already been arguing that criminal trials should be taken away from lay people and entrusted instead to judges alone will become unstoppable.

Of course, one jury that just didn’t have a clue does not spell the end of a trial system that has helped define  English justice and society for hundreds of years.

But it’s a pretty stark hint that something is going terribly awry, not merely with the justice system but with the society that it serves.


About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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Melanie Phillips
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