Friday, February 17, 2012

Why have a jury?

In the famous movie, “Twelve Angry Men”, the jury trying a young man for murder charges is convinced that it is an open and shut case and that there is nothing to discuss. All they needed to do was deliver the verdict of ‘guilty. Slowly and gradually, one of them- played by Henry Fonda-plants some doubts into the mind of each of the other members, one at a time, and finally the verdict is “Not guilty”.

Would a single judge or a bench consisting of 2-3 judges have come to the same conclusion?

If all the cases that are popularized on TV news channels (the Aarushi murder case, etc) are tried in a jury system, what will the verdict be?

Why did Britain have the jury system in the first place? Isn’t knowledge of law and its various nuances necessary and best left to specialists like judges who have risen from the system? Why did India, which adopted several aspects of the British legal system dispense with the jury?

G.K.Chesterton explains in this essay why ordinary people are trusted to take the final decision, rather than the specialists.

The trend of our epoch up to this time has been consistently towards specialism and professionalism. We tend to have trained soldiers because they fight better, trained singers because they sing better, trained dancers because they dance better, specially instructed laughers because they laugh better, and so on and so on. The principle has been applied to law and politics by innumerable modern writers. Many Fabians have insisted that a greater part of our political work should be performed by experts. Many legalists have declared that the untrained jury should be altogether supplanted by the trained Judge.

Now, if this world of ours were really what is called reasonable, I do not know that there would be any fault to find with this. But the true result of all experience and the true foundation of all religion is this. That the four or five things that it is most practically essential that a man should know, are all of them what people call paradoxes.

…..the horrible thing about all legal officials, even the best, about all judges, magistrates, barristers, detectives, and policemen, is not that they are wicked (some of them are good), not that they are stupid (several of them are quite intelligent), it is simply that they have got used to it.

Strictly they do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place. They do not see the awful court of judgment; they only see their own workshop. Therefore, the instinct of Christian civilisation has most wisely declared that into their judgments there shall upon every occasion be infused fresh blood and fresh thoughts from the streets. Men shall come in who can see the court and the crowd, and coarse faces of the policeman and the professional criminals, the wasted faces of the wastrels, the unreal faces of the gesticulating counsel, and see it all as one sees a new picture or a play hitherto unvisited.

Our civilisation has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men. It wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things that I felt in the jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round.
Update: Apparently, in the US system, they have something called a Grand Jury. This article explains:
While a regular trial jury hears both sides of a criminal case and renders a verdict, the grand jury only hears the prosecution’s side of the case and decides only if there’s enough evidence to officially charge the defendant with a crime. Essentially, they act as a filter for criminal trials.

In grand jury hearings, there’s no judge, no defense attorney and no defendant. The State’s prosecutor simply puts a case before the jurors and attempts to show that the defendant should be indicted and go to trial. The defense is not permitted to attend the hearing, question the State’s witnesses, or present witnesses or evidence of their own. 
This system may seem a little skewed in favor of the prosecution, but grand juries don’t just “rubber stamp” the cases brought before them. They often wind up not handing down indictments because the cases aren’t strong enough to go to court. And just because the defense attorneys can’t be there for the hearing doesn’t mean they can’t intercede.


hari said...

As a lawyer, I'm not sure that this is necessarily a case for a jury. I think in the light of modern developments of law and the complexities involved in evidence and procedure, ordinary people not used to hearing evidence in courts are in a poor position determine guilt or innocence or what is right or wrong in a legal sense without getting involved emotionally.

Sure, they can make a decision, but it might not be legally valid and a court of law requires law to be adhered to and justice done as a result of it, not in spite of it.

Sure, judges and legal officers get too used to their positions and may suffer from old ideas or lack of new perspectives, but I think the law is sufficiently developed to a state where individual quirks and personal traits in judges no longer matter as much as it used to in the past.

The problem with an untrained jury is that with the immense media pressure there exists these days and lack of proper idea of what the legal position is, a verdict may be definitely influenced by the media, rather than by the merits of the case.

Raj said...

Hari, I agree with much of what you say. But,remember, even in a jury system in britain, it is the judge who conducts the proceedings, admits evidence and summarises the case to the jury. At least that's what Henry Cecil's books used to convey.

Also, a point that courts can consider is that 'fresh insights' are necessary - which a jury system makes possible. This is true for every field. Corporate Boards try to include members from other disciplines.

hari said...

Raj, yes, the judge conducts the proceedings. The jury's role is to decide questions of fact, while the judge advises them on question of law.

Still, in today's media dominated atmosphere, I feel that juries can easily be influenced and pressurized by the media pundits.

Another thing is that in a country like India, influential and politically connected folk would connive to get on a jury on big and important cases and then try to steer verdicts.

Raj said...

Hari, I concede it won't work in India. But an alternative must be found to enable judges to take a fresh view.