Quiz question: In what year were jurors first allowed to go home while deliberating their verdicts instead of being shut up in a hotel?
It’s not as long ago as you might think. Or perhaps you believe the quarantining of jurors should never have been abandoned, given the supposed new dangers of prejudice via Twitter and the internet?
But first imagine being a juror in the 19th century. When it came to deciding the case, the twelve men (it could only be men, between the ages of 21 and 60 and with the required property qualification) could be kept without ‘fire, food or water’ until they reached a verdict. This famously happened in 1670 when a jury refused to find William Penn and Willaim Meade guilty of unlawful assembly.
Deadlocked or ‘hung’ juries were apparently not allowed until after 1865, and their decision had to be unanimous rather than the 10 to 2 majority accepted today. Some juries made their choice between guilty and not guilty without even leaving the court.
The Juries Act 1870 gave the judge discretion on how the jury were ‘kept’, and if the trial did not finish within a day they were normally taken to a hotel. At that time a room at the Manchester hotel in the City was reserved for Old Bailey cases.
Jurors were allowed to ‘separate’ during the trial itself from 1948 (Criminal Justice Act, section 35), but for the crucial deliberations they would be shut away from the outside world.
In the year 2011, once the judge has summed up the case, the court usher swears to keep the jury in some “private and convenient place” to prevent them from speaking to anyone until they have reached a verdict.
If by the end of the day they have not agreed a decision they are allowed to go home on condition they do not research or discuss the case until all 12 are present the next morning.
When was the first jury allowed to go home? 1995. The law was changed in 1994 (Section 43 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, effective on February 3, 1995). And on February 16 the Central News Agency reported that legal history had been made during the trial of Melanie Myers, 20, and Clifton Quartey, 18.
Myers and Quartey were accused of stabbing minicab driver and father-of-three Mazhar Hussain, 39, to death during a botched robbery in Wembley, northwest London.
After spending the night at home, the jury returned to continue their deliberations and a few hours later convicted Myers of murder and Quartey of manslaughter. Myers was jailed for life and Quartey was sentenced to four years in a young offenders institution.
The changes in the way the justice system has treated juries over the years suggests that ordinary members of the public are being trusted more and more to do their duty despite the potential risk of interference and prejudicial information.
Could this trend go further? Perhaps in the future juries will be allowed to hear the legal arguments of prosecution and defence counsel about the admissibility of evidence, and be able to ignore irrelevant background information. Perhaps the online newspapers and Twitterers/Tweeters will one day be able to comment on trials in progress without fear of prejudice (like in the United States, although the defence can apply to have the jury ‘sequestred’).
Perhaps one day juries will not be treated so much like naughty children and the media not viewed as a scandal-mongering beast capable of perverting the brains of anyone it touches. It seems unlikely, given recent events.
Bentley, David, English Criminal Justice in the 19th Century (1998)