The mess in which the first Vicky Pryce jury found itself really doesn’t match up to the jury that, not so many years ago, used a Ouija board to reach a verdict in a late-night session in a Brighton hotel, writes James Morton.
Nevertheless, it does remind me of some of the old stories about juries from Maurice Healy’s lovely book of reminiscences The Old Munster Circuit.
‘We find the prisoner not guilty.’
‘And is that the verdict of you all?’
‘Yes sir, most of us.’
And: ‘We find the prisoner not guilty but think he should give back the ham he stole.’
Or the judge’s riposte to another unfathomable verdict: ‘You leave the court without a stain on your character save that you were acquitted by a Munster jury.’
Not that lay benches should be exempt. I always heard it was a Willesden chairman, but it may have been another north London chair, who said: ‘We think there is a doubt in your case, but you are not getting the benefit of it.’ I certainly heard the chairman of an Edmonton bench back in the 1960s stopping a defendant in mid-speech with the words: ‘Smith, you have said enough to clear yourself. We find you guilty.’
Until there are some basic literacy and numeracy tests for juries, there will always be odd verdicts. I think it would also help if, after verdicts, advocates could question juries on an informal basis as to how they came to their decision. I was in Boulder, Colorado, once when this was done and the tables were turned when jurors rounded on the prosecution saying: ‘Why didn’t you ask such and such. That’s what we really wanted to know.’
However, no matter how much the jury is told they must not speculate on what the punishment may be if they find the defendant guilty, it is human nature that they will.
My favourite story, however, was told by Patrick Back when he was chairman of a West Country Quarter Sessions. One day he could not find the jury bailiffs and eventually discovered they were sitting in with their juries. ‘We don’t take no part, sir,’ said one in mitigation, ‘but we do hear some funny things’.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor