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Friday, November 25, 2005

English Government Tries to Abolish Juries

An unusual development is taking place in England, sometimes called the birth place of the jury trial since the right to a jury trial was granted 800 years ago by the Magna Carta. The Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General want to eliminate jury trials for serious fraud cases. Why? Because they think juries are too dumb. Others think it is because the government has mishandled a couple of big cases recently, and they are scapegoating the juries.

The government wants the legal system to adopt a "more holistic approach" and have a judge decide such cases. The Guardian has printed a commentary on this proposal that goes into more depth than the news reports:

[T]he government's decision is not based upon any evidence that juries have stymied fraud trials. On the contrary, Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, and Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, are accused by experts of distorting evidence which proves that juries perfectly understand the issues.

Juries are easy targets for those who want to abolish them in both criminal and civil cases. The prosecutors don't like juries in criminal cases, and insurance companies and big businesses don't like juries in civil cases. Perhaps it is because juries reflect the community and are not part of the system. In any event, the push is on in England to get rid of the jury for serious fraud cases. According to the Guardian, the government made little pretense of thoughtful justification:

To fulfil his statutory duty of "consultation" before abolishing juries, Goldsmith summoned about 35 "experts" for a half-day seminar. Among those invited was Professor Michael Zander, an academic expert of the legal system. Zander reported that the seminar lacked "any sense of direction" and ignored America's experience. Falconer admits that he doesn't know why American juries have convicted Bernie Ebbers, Martha Stewart, John Rigas, Dennis Kozlowski and some Enron directors accused of frauds worth hundreds of billions of dollars in recent months.

It's too bad that in the criminal system juries must always convict the accused to prove their "intelligence." Because of constitutional guarantees in the U.S., the jury system is usually under attack in more subtle ways. This is especially true in the civil law. The insurance industry is constantly moaning about medical care evaporating into thin air and the innovation of products being stifled because of jury awards, apparently hoping to influence future juries in their decisions or to convince legislators to override future jury decisions through monetary caps and other restrictions. There is no question that juries can make stupid decisions, just as businesses, the government, lawyers and judges can. But the system does work.

Opponents have apparently forced unspecified compromises.

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