Should trial by jury be abolished?                     Lucia Hughes, Our Lady’s Grammar SchoolIn 1956, Lord Devlin described the jury system as “…more than an instrument of justice and more than a wheel of the constitution; it is the lamp that shows that freedom lives.” A fundamental part of the British and Irish legal system, the jury plays a vital role in promoting a healthy judiciary, and keeping the criminal justice system from being manipulated by political figures to silence their opponents. At least, in theory, it does. In reality, however, is the jury system all it lives up to be?Whilst certainly the most accepted court system, the jury system is a flawed one. When examined on paper, it appears to be certainly the most democratic and incorruptible method, but a number of problems become evident when it is put into practice. For one, juries are not always entirely representative of the defendant’s peers, or even society as a whole. The number of people who are disqualified, ineligible, excused, or challenged may leave out whole sections of society from the jury process, and a party may choose to challenge a particular type of person in order to skew the entire jury in their favour. Additionally, jurors may be influenced by their own personal opinions and biases, and not upon the strength of evidence; or may, through simple incompetence and a failure to understand certain complex legal matters, be unable to weigh a case properly. The Roskill Report (1986) recommends the removal of jurors during such complex trials, e.g., fraud, and the replacement of a judge sitting with informed specialist assessors.It is also a fact that trials by jury tend to acquit more defendants than the magistrates do, potentially through sympathy with the defendant. It calls into doubt the ability for lay jurors to properly perform their function, and many critics of the system argue that it is a major failing. The fact that some crimes require unanimous ‘guilty’ verdicts for conviction and others only require a majority vote implies that there are different standards of proof required, which is in direct conflict with the entitlement of the defendants to a fair and consistent trial. Whilst the unaccountability of the jury may be seen as an indicator of the independence of the ruling, it is also a problem, as it makes it impossible to guarantee that there has been no tampering with the jury.When considering the potential abolition of jury trials, we must consider the question: what is the alternative? In Northern Ireland, the suspension of jury trials was an excuse for a grave miscarriage of justice. The Diplock Courts during the Troubles were intended for use during terrorism-related charges, with courts consisting of a single judge; the reason for this, it was claimed, was to prevent intimidation of the jury. The police and the army were given de facto unchallengeable powers of arrest and detention, and the judge himself given the power act in place of the jury and acquit or convict the accused as he pleased. The absence of safeguards against arbitrary arrests and detentions and the non-availability of habeas corpus both raise serious issues concerning human rights, but to place the freedom of individuals in the hands of a single, individually-biased state-appointed judge goes entirely against the democratic basis of the judicial system.Given that the Diplock system, whilst considered a “success” at the time, turned out to serve only to alienate the public from their legal system and increase sympathy for the Republican cause, it is clear that single-judge systems cannot effectively replace juries. As of yet, no acceptable alternative to juries has been established; a court of specialist jurors disengages the public from the system, and as does a court of professionally employed jurors. Given that no other option to the traditional jury system has been proposed and accepted internationally, it appears as if, at worst, we are stuck with the jury. At best, however, the jury system offers a fair and unbiased cross-section of the public, reduces corruption, and reflects upon the societal values of the defendant’s peers.The jury is often considered by the public as the ‘bulwark of individual liberties’. The opinion of twelve jurors potentially offers a more impartial trial, as individual biases are more likely to be prevented, and when a person’s liberty is at stake, it is a matter of grave principle that they should be tried by their peers. Established around a thousand years ago, many critics deem the jury system to be an antiquated remnant of more archaic times, carried on today only through sheer tradition. However, the jury system has managed to adapt and survive in a range of legal and political scenarios, and this in itself could be regarded as a powerful testament to the relevance of the jury system today; it has endured through political, social and legal upheavals in both the UK and Ireland, and continues to stand as a symbol of the willingness and necessity of the law to change to fit our contemporary society.


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