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Young people the best at understanding judges

17 February 2010

Jurors aged 18-29 are the best at understanding oral directions from judges, a study for the Ministry of Justice has shown.

The finding is at odds with comments made by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, that future generations would struggle to cope with “sitting and listening” and the oral traditions of the courts might have to change (see Solicitors Journal 153/40, 27 October 2009).

A detailed study of 240 jurors who took part in case simulation studies at Winchester Crown Court found that 49 per cent of those aged 18-29 fully understood oral directions on the law.

Only 28 per cent of those aged 30-49 fully understood the directions, a figure which dropped to 21 per cent for those aged over 50.

The study also asked jurors to identify two questions the judge asked them to answer to determine if a defendant had acted in self-defence.

The questions were whether the defendant believed it was necessary to defend himself and whether he used reasonable force.

Only 31 per cent of jurors identified both questions, with 48 per cent identifying one of the two.

The research, by Professor Cheryl Thomas at UCL, found that when given a one-page summary of the judge’s directions, 48 per cent were able to identify correctly both questions the judge said needed to be answered.

The proportion which failed to identify either question correctly fell from 21 per cent to 16 per cent.

Case simulations at Winchester and Nottingham Crown Courts found that all-white juries did not discriminate against ethnic minority defendants.

White jurors in Nottingham, which unlike Winchester has a small number of ethnically-mixed areas, were “sensitive to cases involving inter-racial conflict” and more likely to convict white defendants accused of assaulting non-white victims.

The study also showed that women were more likely to change their verdicts as a result of jury deliberations than men.

A much wider study of all charges in the Crown Court between 2006 and 2008 (more than half a million of them) found that white and Asian defendants were equally likely to be convicted. The conviction rate for these defendants was 63 per cent, while a slightly higher proportion of black defendants were convicted – 67 per cent.

Convictions for all groups fluctuated from 53 per cent in some courts to 69 per cent in others. Juries were more likely to convict in rape cases (55 per cent) than where the charge was GBH (48 per cent), manslaughter or attempted murder.

Professor Thomas recommended that jurors were issued with written guidelines on their role and, in particular, told they should not use the internet to research or discuss cases.

Lord Justice Thomas, deputy head of criminal justice, said work had been under way in the area of directions to juries for some time.

He said the Judicial Studies Board recommended that written directions be given to juries in all but the simplest cases.

“It must always be remembered that juries considering their verdict can ask the judge for clarification of any aspect of the case.”

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