Threat of jail to Facebook Juror

Posted by Alexander Hay

The UK legal system is flawed and archaic

Our justice system doesn't work

A juror pleaded guilty today for contempt of court after contacting the defendant in the case she was considering. The woman, Joanne Fraill, may face two years in prison, along with the defendant herself, after the drugs case in question collapsed as a result of the allegations.

But should we really be surprised? There is something both rather too optimistic and too dogmatic about compelling 12 random strangers to come to court and work out if someone should lose their freedom or pay out £1 million because they hurt someone's feelings.

That jurors have to seal themselves away hermetically (and definitely stay away from Facebook) in case they are 'compromised' rather gives away how clumsy and impractical the process is. If a case can collapse over a social networking site, then doesn't that say something about how ill suited juries are to the task at hand?

Indeed, as ridiculous romantic notions go, the concept of someone being tried by 'his peers', also known as '12 men and women, fair and true', is up there with drifting down the Thames in a raft pretending to be The Lady of Shalott.

People are flawed, their grasp of the law amateurish and they are there under duress. Is it any wonder that there are so many miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions?

If you need a professional barrister to represent you, and a professional doctor to treat you, then surely you should at least expect a professional juror who's both paid and trained to do his or her job. Jury trials suffer from an obsession with both the amateurish and the archaic.

But there is a greater issue here, namely the very nature of how the legal system proceeds. Contrary to its protestations, the main purpose of the law is 'Due Process' - justice as both a practical and abstract concept is secondary as long as all the proper rubrics and rituals have been performed.

The adversarial system, where overpaid barristers take sides based on who hired them first and where victory is pursued not by acquiring the truth but by petty point scoring, isn't 'fit for purpose' either. Ask any rape victim.

The Crown Prosecution Service, meanwhile, staffed as it is by lawyers, seems less interested in justice or public confidence and more in its own convenience and easy wins.

Moreover, Fraill is not being tried for obstructing justice or breach of contract or perverting the course of justice, all of which would be adequate charges, but 'contempt of court'. This too is both anachronistic and rather sinister - it assumes that a judge cannot be questioned or challenged and that his or her authority is total.

But to whom is a judge accountable? In effect, they represent The Crown but are seldom disciplined except for truly egregious behaviour and can and do effectively write laws without democratic oversight.

Forelock tugging deference under pain of imprisonment remains the case in our courts, for all the strictures and dogmas we have otherwise cast aside.

Some argue that the symbolism and traditions of the judiciary gives it authority. Those in the media who have suffered at the censorious hands of Judge Eady or been imprisoned on false charges because of a judge's directions to the jury may choose to disagree.

And so it seems strange that while we hold our politicians and police to account and scrutinise them vigorously, no such vigour is applied to the legal system. Perhaps this will change in the wake of the Super Injunctions fiasco, which has made the gulf between judges and the public all too clear. But for now, the system is in the dock, and the case is very much one that's open and shut.

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Alexander Hay

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