The Jury System in UK’s Criminal Courts

The jury system has been part of the United Kingdom’s criminal justice system for at least nine centuries. It is viewed as a powerful symbol of the country’s judicial system, and is considered as one of the strongest and most appealing element of the system. In many ways, trials by jury transform ordinary citizens into stakeholders in the criminal justice system. It’s no surprise then to hear that there are literally dozens of countries around the world which use trial by jury in their judicial systems.

Image courtesy of Douglas Muth

  • Origin of the Jury System in the United Kingdom

    The earliest recorded evidence of a jury system dates back to over 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece. Apparently, the number of jurors could even go up to 1,500 people in high profile trials. However, jurors only made an appearance in England in the 12th century when King Henry II (1133 –1189) established a jury system in 1215 to help him resolve a growing number of land disputes. No one is quite certain who imported trial by jury to the British Isles - although there is a strong case to be made for the Vikings, who were known to use 12 hereditary law men to settle tribal disputes.

    Regardless, trial by jury was a massive improvement over the previous system, trial by ordeal, which typically injures both parties in a dispute since the ordeals include walking barefoot on burning coals or being branded with glowing red stamps (healing rate usually determines the party in the right). Another popular ordeal is being thrown in large bodies of water – sinking to the bottom indicates innocence.

    In any case, the concept proved successful, and it became part of common law thereafter. Upon the establishment of written law, trial by jury was codified into statutory provisions and consolidated numerous times culminating with the Juries (Disqualification) Act 1984.

    Today, the use of a jury trial in the UK has been limited to criminal trials with indictable offences in the Crown Court.

  • Empanelling Jurors in UK

    Selection of jurors for trial in UK is a fairly straightforward process. The names of potential jurors are randomly selected by a computer from the electoral role from the location of the presiding Crown Court. A notice is then sent to the potential jurors to attend the jury service, which typically takes ten days (exception applies).

    It is worth noting that the computer automatically disqualifies citizens who are

    • Not between 18 and 70 years
    • Not residing in the UK, Channel Islands or the Isle of Man for a minimum of five years
    • Mentally disordered

    In addition, when reporting for duty, jurors can also be disqualified if they have received a prison sentence exceeding five years (exception applies), or are currently on bail on an indictable criminal offence. During the vetting process, a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check will be performed on potential jurors.

    Potential jurors who do not respond to jury service can be fined £1,000. In addition, jurors who failed to disclose to the court of their disqualification status could be slapped with a £5,000 fine.

  • Jury Selection

    Potential jurors are usually divided into groups of 15, and each group will be assigned to a specific case. The first 12 of the 15 jurors will usually be selected for the trial, unless one or more of them are challenged by either the defence or prosecution.

  • Trivia

    In the event of shortage of jurors, presiding judges are empowered by law to randomly select replacement jurors from among bystanders or people walking in the street!

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