Juries are considered one of the vital protections for the accused. They stem from the Magna Carta and thus pre-date the Constitution but now are protected in Article 38.5 of Bunreacht.
The right to a jury does not, obviously, extend to cases in the Special Criminal Court, summary offences or military courts.Save in the case of the trial of offences under section 2, section 3 or section 4 of this Article no person shall be tried on any criminal charge without a jury.
The jury is generally seen as one of the foremost protections for the accused. A trial of a regular criminal offence (ie one falliing outside sections 2,3 and 4 of Article 38) without a jury would be struck down immediately by the SC. But is it really all that important or useful? What actual purpose does this lay-element in the criminal justice system serve?
It would seem that many attach importance to the jury because it is seen as "democratic". Devlin, and English judge, called each jury a "little parliament". But I contend that this is utterly incorrect and that a jury falls far far short of any possible criteria for being called democratic. First of all, the sample size is simply too small for a jury to represent society to any meaningful extent. Juries generally have 12 people and in Ireland are supposed to represent a society of four million. Taking a sample of 12 as representative of 4,000,000 yields a margin of error of about 30%. That margin will obviously be significantly larger again in the UK. Now think about that; you know when mrbi or RedC polls come out, they usually have a sample size about about 1,000 and a margin of error of about 2%. The Sindo poll, using a sample size of 500 with a margin of error of about 5% I think, is widely seen as barely credible or not at all. Imagine a poll came out with a sample of 12 people and a margin of error of about 30%! Would you pay it much heed? Now obviously a jury is not the same as a polling sample and they fulfill different roles but the point is the same; 12 people cannot possibly be representative of society, even if completely randomly chosen.
And they are not randomly chosen; not from our society of 4 million anyway. The Juries Act 1976 places significant restrictions on who can be called to do jury duty (full list here). this obviously completely precludes the possibility of a fully representative cross-section of society.
I have dealt with only one aspect of the jury question; the myth of representativeness. There are other issues too which hopefully we can discuss in due course. Incidentally, jury trials have been on the decrease in the UK over the past few years, as more offences are transferred to the courts of summary jurisdiction to save money and clear up the backlog in the Crown Court. Clearly the right to a jury is not so infallible over there. Should this come as any surprise? The juries are supposed to be a protection for the accused, yet in the really high profile cases like the Winchester Three and the Birmingham Six the jury did little to counter the abuse of process that took place at the pre-trial stage. And in general, it must be asked, if juries are such a vital and beneficial protection for the accused, why must the accused have such extensive protection against a jury?
Thoughts? What do you all think of the jury system?