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Judge says tech-addled jurors undermine justice

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Comment After years of complaints that judges may not always be in touch with the modern world, one judge hit back last week by suggesting that younger jury members may be too conditioned by technology to give defendants a fair trial. Worse, they are so used to doing their own research online that they have wrecked several major trials.

The problem, according to Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge of Draycote is that most young people get their information from the internet. He said: "They are not listening. They are reading."

In similar vein, teachers often observe that a diet of TV and the internet mean that today’s youth have difficulty concentrating for long periods of time. Information needs to be presented in short easy-to-digest bites. Both these factors may eventually have major effects on our court system.

According to Lord Judge: "Our system of jury trials depends on 12 good men and women and true coming to court and listening to the case. Orality is the crucial ingredient of the adversarial system".

The technology exists to present information to jurors on screens, and it might be that this is the best approach for young jurors. Currently, this is done in complex cases, such as fraud trials, but the process comes "not without difficulty and with great expense".

Over time, the cost balance may change. The fundamental issue the Lord Chief Justice addresses is that our system is based on the weighing of evidence presented, and that a significant part of the weighing process has always been the ability to listen to the individuals involved.

He said: "Witnesses speak and answer questions. Counsel speak and address the jury. Judges speak and give directions.

"What about the defendant's oral testimony and child witness complaining of an indecent assault which the defendant adamantly denies?"

Would moving the evidence from the spoken to the written arena take away the jury’s ability to weigh it properly – or finally remove an unfair advantage from those who present themselves well?

Whilst listening may be an issue in some trials, in others it is the tendency of jurors to go back to do their own research, often aided and abetted by the internet.

In his speech, the Lord Chief Justice also referred to a conviction for rape that had to be quashed when it became clear that a juror had gone researching online using a Blackberry.

In January of this year, Judge David Paget QC reluctantly discharged a jury, thereby cutting short the trial for child cruelty of a children's nanny, after he became aware that one juror had been picking up misinformation on the internet.

An even more spectacular debacle occurred in August, when Judge David Hodson abandoned a manslaughter trial at Newcastle Crown Court, after a middle-aged juror turned sleuth and carried out his own investigations. These involved visiting the site of the alleged crime, taking photos, taking measurements of a fence critical to the case and researching his own theories on the internet, before persuading the jury to hand a list of 37 "key questions" to the judge.

The victim’s family were said to be "devastated" when the judge decided that the defendant could not now be sent for re-trial. The cost of the abandoned trial, not including lawyers’ fees, was estimated at around £60,000.

The problem is that not all legal procedure makes obvious sense to the layperson. Some evidence is omitted for technical reasons; other evidence is left out because lawyers decide not to introduce it. That may not always appear to be objectively fair, but before being too critical, perhaps readers should consider the alternative: if jurors are allowed to take this path, the day cannot be far off when the fate of the accused hinges on what an avid researcher turns up on Google or, even - heaven forbid! - Wikipedia.

We rest our case. ®

Bootnote

Lord Judge, formerly Judge Judge, was christened Igor Judge. Whilst the evidence of names predestining an individual for a career is a tad shaky, in this case, the parents of the young I Judge appear to have been spot on.

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