Vicky Pryce trial: there’s nothing wrong with jury service – just the length of trials

Vicky Price in court

Are you the sort of person who is easily bored? Can you sit in a work meeting all afternoon without nodding off? Do you enjoy watching three-hour director’s cut movies or unedited speeches by Fidel Castro? Or, like me, do you get impatient at unnecessary waffle, and prefer anything work-related to be boiled down to a few sides of A4 where possible? Are you still even reading this blog post?

If so, I’m flattered and delighted. The fact is, though, that no matter how low your boredom threshold is, you and others like you are almost certain to one day be chosen for a task that will stretch your attention span to its limit. Yes, all rise please, you’ve been selected for jury service.

The aptitude of the ordinary man or woman in the street for matters of jurisprudence took a hit this week after the collapse of the trial of former minister Chris Huhne’s ex-wife Vicky Pryce for perverting the course of justice. A shocked judge at Southwark Crown Court discharged a jury panel after they sent him a list of questions that suggested were “struggling” with the most “basic concept” of trial by jury. Somehow, it seemed, the jury selection procedure had picked people who had never watched a single telly legal drama – somewhat odd, given the popular perception that most jurors are retired or jobless folks who have considerable time to spend watching the box.

Admittedly, some of the queries – such as “can you define what is reasonable doubt?” – did suggest that this particular jury were struggling a bit (or, perhaps, that they had a philosophy student among their number). But while the case has led to yet another round of hand-wringing about whether the jury system is still fit for purpose, and whether some qualification other than mere membership of the electoral roll should be reintroduced, I would suggest a rather different reform.

It’s quite simple – make court trials much quicker than they currently are. Truncate hearings that are set for several months down to several weeks, hearings that are set down for several weeks to several days, and so on. The overall effect would be to focus the minds of both prosecution and defence alike, and so I doubt there would be any unfair impact on either side.

Lest you think there is reasonable doubt as whether I have a clue what I’m talking about, let me disclose the following in defence of my case. I may not be a Master of The Rolls, but I have spent a fair amount of time sitting in trials over the years, first as a reporter on a local paper, and then on a news agency in London, where I visited Southwark Crown Court on numerous occasions. And while I never came to query the jury system itself, I was struck how long and drawn out the proceedings often were.

Often a trial would revolve around only a few real points of contention, yet hours and hours would be taken up by hearing largely the same evidence from different people. It was not uncommon, for example, for nearly every single police officer who attended a given incident to give their testimony, even when it varied hardly at all in terms of the central issues at question. No matter how gripping the case, it was not unusual to have odd moments where one found oneself struggling to stay awake.

The reason why trials are time-consuming, of course, is that when a person’s liberty or reputation is at stake, every last scrap of evidence should be open for examination and no stone left unturned. It’s also true that these days, most courts do make some effort to sift out witnesses whose testimony is similar. But as a fairly seasoned observer – and, indeed, a one-time member of a Southwark jury – I couldn’t help wondering whether things could have been speeded up a bit more.

Most people, after all, have a limited ability to pay proper attention to endless hours of evidence anyway – never mind weeks – especially if, like in most trials, much of it is less than electrifying. Moreover, I find it hard to think of any other walk of life in which so much time is allocated to making a single decision. In the world of business, for example, decisions of considerable complexity are routinely made within a matter of hours. If the average boardroom spent days and days listening to every scrap of available evidence, the firm they were in charge of would soon struggle.

A similar comparison was drawn earlier this week by this week by the Criminal Justice minister, Damian Green, who on Tuesday announced new plans to speed up the British criminal court system’s so-called “adjournment culture”. He said the justice system was now a “Dickensian” relic operating in a “world that has speeded up”, and pointed out that there would be a “national outcry” if such inefficiencies still existed in the rail service or the NHS. He was talking more about postponements and delays in the system, but there’s no reason why such efficiency drives shouldn’t be applied to the trial procedure itself as well.

True, I suspect that any kind of curb on the actual length of jury trials would cause an outcry from human rights groups and lawyers. Indeed, a neighbour who is a barrister looked at me with horror when I suggested it, as if I was proposing a reintroduction of hanging (or indeed, a dramatic reduction in barristers’ fees).

But nonetheless, I would be prepared to bet that if judges and barristers were forced to set much stricter time limits for their tasks – as people find themselves asked to do in many other walks of professional life – there would be little difference overall to the quality of justice. Trials would be boiled down more to the relevant points, minds would be more focused, and – just as importantly – there would be less strain on the court system.

Not only would that cut costs – a typical Crown Court trial costs tens of thousands of pounds a day to run – it would also have the useful effect of cutting down on the length of time any juror had to serve. Many working people, especially the self-employed and those in higher-paid, responsible jobs, are reluctant to do any jury service lasting more than the standard two weeks, meaning that is often the unemployed and less qualified who dominate jury panels in trials involving serious offences.

On which note, having waffled on about the values of concision and brevity, I rest my case. And if you’re still reading, congratulations. You should probably be selected for jury service. Quick, off you go, before you nod off.

Read more by Colin Freeman on Telegraph Blogs

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