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Criminal Jurors

Volume 836: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2024

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to recognise the work of criminal jurors and, in particular, whether they plan to introduce an ‘appreciation day’ for them.

My Lords, the Government recognise the crucial importance of the role of jurors in delivering justice and the need to secure their well-being. The Government have no current plans to introduce a juror appreciation day, but we continue to commend the hard work of jury panels throughout the year and to explore ways of supporting those who are undertaking this very important civic duty.

My Lords, I am obviously disappointed by my noble and learned friend’s Answer. Other jurisdictions, such as Canada, have introduced such a week—not just a day. There is an increase in jurors speaking out after serving on some of our most notorious trials about the effect that jury service had on them, such as making them unwell. Can my noble and learned friend agree to have a call for evidence to understand what the extent of this issue is? Then there could be analysis of whether it is the type or length of case, or the way in which evidence is presented nowadays, with much more footage, rather than photographs, that is causing these issues that we can then assess.

My Lords, I would like first, if I may, to thank my noble friend for raising this issue and for organising a recent stakeholder conference. The Government are aware of the question that she rightly raises, but are not, at present, planning for a call for evidence as such. We already have regular jury satisfaction surveys, which generally express high levels of jury satisfaction and a willingness to serve again. We do know that a minority of jurors suffer stress, and we are exploring options that we intend to test in the Crown Courts later this year and to issue further guidance to courts on the circumstances in which ad hoc support can be arranged.

My Lords, I wish the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, well with this campaign. Does the Minister, from his own vast experience, think that judges could take more responsibility, particularly in cases that have obviously affected the mental health of jurors, and also where judges can push against the law’s delay, which Shakespeare talked about 400 years ago and is still very much a factor in our legal system?

My Lords, speaking from the experience of a sometime, extreme lowly, recorder of the Crown Court, the first thing that one is taught as a criminal judge is to ensure the well-being of the jury. I am sure that all judges go out of their way to ensure that the jury is properly looked after—as do the court ushers and the jury bailiffs—and they are, generally speaking, warmly thanked for their participation. There will be occasions when further support is needed, and the Government are, as I said, planning trials and tests, later this year, to explore the options.

My Lords, I ask a question as an even more lowly recorder than my noble and learned friend the Minister—albeit that he and I have not carried out that role for some many years. Can I suggest to him that there is a practical way in which juries can be better appreciated, despite the good work of the court staff and so forth? Their accommodation is, frankly, hopeless. They sit for long periods, having to concentrate, on uncomfortable benches. They retire to pretty low-grade rooms, and those who are in the jury-in-waiting are accommodated in fairly poor-quality accommodation. Could my noble and learned friend see if the department can improve the jury accommodation, not just in the modern courts—they are a bit better—but in some of the older and more dilapidated courts?

My Lords, I am happy to report to the House that the present Lord Chancellor secured a major financial injection from the Treasury, specifically to improve the court estate—which, in some areas, has been a problem, as my noble and learned friend has rightly pointed out. I am sure that at least some of that money will, rightly, go on improving accommodation for the jury.

My Lords, I was a juror about 35 years ago at the Old Bailey. It was a multiple rape case, and I can still remember the details and the name of the perpetrator. I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for her pursuance of this issue. The Minister talked about ad hoc support for jurors. Can he be more specific about what his department is proposing to offer jurors?

My Lords, I think that this will be the subject of the test and trials later this year that I have just mentioned, but I shall give an example. Following the recent Letby trial and the tragic events at the Countess of Chester Hospital, the jurors in that case were offered support by a charity in Manchester called Victim Support, and I thank that charity for its offering in that respect. It was, specifically, a counselling service for those jurors. My understanding is that every member of the jury was offered it, but that the take-up was very low.

My Lords, there has been a massive increase in financial crime. What are the Government doing to make sure that jurors—and, indeed, judges—have the required skills to deal with such cases?

My Lords, in financial crime, the ultimate question is, normally, whether the defendants have acted honestly or not. Experience suggests—and my own experience suggests—that jurors are perfectly capable of determining whether someone has acted honestly or not, despite the financial complexity of some of these trials.

My Lords, we are all extremely grateful for the task that jurors perform extremely conscientiously, but there is a very significant backlog in the Crown Courts at the moment of people awaiting trial by jury. Have the Government considered the possibility of allowing a defendant to elect to be tried either by a judge—or by a judge and two magistrates—if he or she wants to do so? Further to what the noble Lord, Lord Watts, asked, is it not the case that, as long ago as about 50 years ago, Lord Roskill recommended the possibility of trial by judge alone in difficult and complex financial cases? Is that a matter that the Government are thinking about further?

To the last part of that question, as I have just said, the Government are extremely reluctant to qualify in any way the right of all citizens to be tried by a peer group of 12 good and true, whatever their background or walk of life, so the answer to the Roskill suggestion is no. As to the possibility of the option of being tried by a jury, a judge alone or a judge and two assessors, for example, that is not in contemplation by this Government for the same reason.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord opposite raised the question of accommodation for jurors in circumstances in which they operate within the courts. What consideration is being given to the position of witnesses, some of whom may be traumatised by what they are being required to do, or traumatised by other witnesses in the case? Is there sufficient being done to ensure that they have somewhere quiet, safe and secure where they feel they can wait to be called in evidence?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very good point. Witnesses obviously form an essential part of the system. I can tell your Lordships that the witness support service has made great strides in recent years in making sure that witnesses are properly looked after and briefed as to what to expect. It is a completely different situation from what it was 20 or 30 years ago.