The Christchurch Civic Crèche Case

Law Reform Index

Unanimous Jury Verdicts

The Evening Standard
October 25 2004

Common sense and the law

Rumblings over planned moves to limit the right to trial by jury, bring in majority verdicts in place of unanimous decisions and change the rule against double jeopardy, are showing little sign of going away, judging by what a leading crimimal lawyer had to say to the parliamentary committee which is considering the Criminal Procedure Bill. QC Donald Stevens joined the Law Society and other high-profile lawyers in opposing the changes, hailed by Justice Minister Phil Goff as together making up one of the most important recent pieces of legislation on criminal procedures. He's right about that, if the vigorous reactions engendered by the proposals are anything to go by. Yet the Greens are the only political party to oppose the bill.

Might that not at least partly be because what is in the bill reflects public concerns about the justice system? There is considerable exasperation, for example, at the number of juries which over the years have been unable to reach a verdict, the suspicion being that most of them have "hung" because one of the 12 people on the jury has held out against everyone else. That doesn't make that person wrong and the rest right, of course, but it is often seen as flying in the face of common sense and human nature. Better 10 guilty people be set free than one innocent person be sent to prison? The adage is often employed in support of unanimous verdicts, but the rising fear nowadays is that too often the guilty are getting off because a clever lawyer has been able, inevitably, to bamboozle one of the 12 -- which is all it takes.

Similar sentiments are to be heard with regard to the doctrine of double jeopardy. Again, common sense suggests that if someone confesses to murder, for instance, after they had earlier been acquitted of it, or some new and compelling other evidence comes to light, then it ought to be possible for that person to be again charged with committing the same crime. The legal purists might throw up their hands in horror at such a watering down of the hitherto rigid ban on double jeopardy, but it is a fair bet that a street poll would find an overwhelming majority of ordinary people in favour of the change.

If the object of the exercise is also to speed up the administration of justice, then making more provision for judges to hear complex cases such as fraud by themselves, without a jury, is a sensible reform too. However, it is important that the right to a hearing by one's peers is retained, which would mean more judge-alone trials provided the defence didn't object. It is vital that people are not locked out of the justice system, which is why juries must continue to matter despite the number of critics who seem to know better. Juries are, if you like, the ultimate bastion of common sense, recognition that one way or another, we all count.

One more thing: The perils of wearing two hats was driven home to Boris Johnson recently when the Tory shadow arts minister was keelhauled for things he wrote about Liverpool in the Spectator, of which he is the editor. Without repeating what he had to say about the Hillsborough soccer stadium tragedy and the murder of hostage Ken Bigley in Iraq, suffice to say it led to people declaring they would only read the Spectator if it was dipped in Dettol. As for the hapless Mr Johnson, he checked in at a backstreet hotel in Liverpool under an assumed name after being ordered by his leader to visit the city and say sorry.