VILE LAWYERS AND THIS COMES FROM A POLITICAL GOON LIKE BLUNKETT
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Doing jury service has made me realise how cynical lawyers have reduced court to an expensive, shambolic farce
Have you ever been well and truly hoist by your own petard? I certainly have, because when I was Home Secretary I tightened the rules to prevent people like me being able to avoid jury service.
It seemed a good idea at the time, as juries were increasingly made up of people who were either retired or unemployed, and we needed to ensure that they represented a wider spread of our society.
So when I was recently summoned for jury service in my home city of Sheffield, I had no choice but to accept. In any case, I was happy to serve because I’m always preaching about active citizenship and the need for people to be involved in what David Cameron calls the Big Society.
However, I have to say that when I presented myself at Crown Court, the experience exceeded my worst fears. As a man who was once in charge of this failing system, I found myself asking if I could have done things differently.
I wonder, too, whether Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke (whose responsibilities I, as home secretary, once had) might just be thinking similarly today after sparking an outcry for trying to defend controversial government proposals to halve the sentences of some rapists if they made early guilty pleas.
As I discovered, squaring the circle of transparent and honest sentencing with Treasury pressures to cut costs is always a nightmare.
My sympathies would be with Mr Clarke if only the ‘fine mess’ he’s got himself into hadn’t been so utterly predictable.
But perhaps the swashbuckling, Hush-Puppy-wearing Justice Secretary could look at other ways of cost-cutting. Rather than reducing sentences for horrendous crimes, he could order a wholesale review of how the court system works.
For my own jury experience left me staggered by the sheer waste of time and public money resulting from the chaos in our courts. Jurors had to sit around for days on end as trial after trial was cancelled because defendants or witnesses failed to turn up, or because barristers had double-booked, or members of the legal profession connived to stymie the judicial process.
None of this is the fault of juries — even though one of Britain’s most senior judges, Lord Justice Moses — has said that this broken system could be fixed by curbing the power of juries.
Such a view is profoundly wrong. Rather than restricting the independence of jurors, we should restrain the power of the legal profession. Indeed, the last thing we should do is to give lawyers a greater licence to waste public money.
And my, how they waste taxpayers’ money — as my fortnight’s jury service showed only too clearly.
When I arrived at Sheffield Crown Court on that first Monday, it appeared that we would be in for a busy week. Nine courts were available and seven new trials were listed. Forty-six jurors had been ‘inducted’ to cover all these trials and by 10.30 am we were ready to go.
But as the day wore on, it became clear we were going nowhere. Only one of the seven trials got under way; the others either collapsed or were postponed.
Of course, there are many unpredictable factors that can cause problems. Prisoners may, for example, be delivered late for court hearings, or the police or Crown Prosecution Service officials fail to get the case ready in time.
But the biggest problem is the way that defence barristers and solicitors manipulate the system.
Often, a defendant’s counsel will cynically instruct the accused to change his plea at the last minute to guilty — knowing that this will result in a so-called ‘cracked’ or collapsed trial.
This means the police and prosecution witnesses, as well as potential jurors, will all have wasted their day; not to mention the judiciary, whose time has been spent reading up on the cases.
Another common reason for proceedings being delayed — and therefore the court’s time wasted — is when lawyers deliberately present evidence late, or when new evidence is suddenly produced. This often results in the case being adjourned, adding yet more to the costs.
After Day One was a washout, I wasn’t surprised that when I arrived in court the following morning, two of the five trials listed had already fallen.
Lunchtime came and went, and those of us jurors who were still waiting for a case were invited to meet one of the resident judges, who thanked us for our patience and explained that, regretfully, none of the trials listed to start that day would be going ahead.
Ah well, I thought, two days down: we’ll see what tomorrow brings.
Wednesday followed much the same pattern. When, again, none of the trials listed got off the ground, I was beginning to think this was an utter waste of everyone’s time. While I repaired to a side room to get on with some constituency work, other jurors read, played cards or watched daytime TV.
Surely, Day Four would see some activity? At last, I was called for a case. Now I would get a better idea from the inside how the judicial system worked in practice.
Initially, I was concerned that my blindness might be a problem when it came to seeing the evidence, but the only difficulty I had — one experienced by fellow jurors, too — was how hard it was to hear the evidence given by the witnesses and the accused. With no microphones available, they were constantly asked to speak up.
What struck me, too, was that those giving evidence needed proper guidance about the way the court system worked, and what was expected of them, and it left me wondering whether perhaps trained volunteers could help with this.
As for the presence of a former Home Secretary on the jury, the defendant in the case seemed rather disconcerted, while my fellow jurors overcame their initial surprise and were very helpful.
When we eventually retired to the jury room to consider our verdict, we had a long and sensible discussion about the case, and the very able young woman who had been chosen as foreman asked each one of us for our verdicts. I agreed with everyone else.
After all the delays and problems of the first three days, at least I felt my experience of the jury’s deliberations was an admirable example of how the system can work.
For obvious reasons which involve the laws of contempt, I can’t give details of the case I was involved in, suffice it to say that it should never have reached Crown Court.
It was a trial that could easily have been dealt with — at much less cost — in the Magistrates’ Courts. After all, it is supposed to be only the most serious cases, requiring barristers as well as a jury, which should reach the Crown Court.
So as well as feeling frustrated about the waste of time and money (incurring expensive barristers’ fees, as well as many other costs, including jurors’ expenses), I also started thinking more profoundly than before about the role of the jury.
Above all, it confirmed my view that the system has got to be changed so that it is harder for people to opt for a jury trial. It is well-known that defendants seeking to persuade the court of their innocence prefer jury trials, because they believe juries are more sympathetic than a magistrate, who sees hardened criminals in the dock every day.
Having learned much from my first case, I hoped I would also learn more from my second week as a juror. But the following Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday passed and I never saw another defendant or judge in court.
On that second Thursday, having been on jury duty for nine days and having served on only one case, Citizen Blunkett was discharged.
Despite a total of 36 trials listed over the two weeks, only five had gone ahead — and thousands of pounds had been wasted on many lawyers, police and officials whose expertise was not called upon.
As a former Home Secretary, once in charge of this failing system, I am left to wonder if I should have pressed harder to get things changed. Having now had the experience of two weeks as a juror, I realise I didn’t know the half of it.