Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Police jurors are a threat to fair trials, senior judges warn

Police officers should not be allowed to sit on juries because of the danger they pose to the fairness of trials, senior members of the judiciary say.

The criticism by four senior Crown Court judges sitting in England and Wales follows a shake-up of the criminal justice system five years ago. Before the change, police officers, judges, defence lawyers and prosecutors were exempt from serving on juries.

But research by a retired US judge has uncovered hostility to the reform, in particular extending eligibility for jury service to police officers. One judge said: "I do think the notion of opening up juries to those actually involved in the legal system is a step too far. When I say the legal system, I include police officers." Another said: "I think it's too far to have judges and policemen sit on juries... In a criminal case police in particular are not who you would want on a dispassionate jury."

One judge said: "Juror expertise may cause the case to be tried on more than the evidence before the court". The judge, who presides over serious fraud trials, said: "We tell jurors that they are to try the case based on the evidence... before them but it is hard for any juror to put their knowledge and expertise aside."

Last year, the House of Lords ruled that the "possibility of bias, possibly unconscious, which flowed from the presence on the jury of persons professionally committed to one side of the adversarial trial process" could form the basis for quashing a conviction.

And this year the Court of Appeal said that one way around concerns about bias was to get jurors to declare their profession earlier in the pre-trial process.

Peter Lodder QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said it was difficult to know what influence police officers had on jurors because of the rule which banned inquiries into the behaviour of jurors during their deliberations.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "We believe that the pool of people eligible for jury service should be as wide as possible."


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