The Pryce Jury’s Questions

John Rentoul

12angrymen1 416x288 300x207 The Pryce Jurys QuestionsThe jurors in the Vicky Pryce case may be stupid but the jury system is a bulwark of British liberty: that seems to be the gist of several comments on the questions asked by the jury before it failed to agree a verdict.*

I disagree. Even the really stupid-sounding questions went to the heart of some deep legal puzzles.

The jury’s questions included whether a jury could come to a verdict “based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it, either from the prosecution or the defence”. Oh, how the sophisticates of the Guardian and the Mail laughed at such simpletons. Mr Justice Sweeney, too, responded with exasperation: “The answer to that question is simply: no.”

But it is not so simple. The question was not phrased in legal language, but the extent to which juries are allowed to use their general knowledge of life is not at all clear.

The jury also asked the judge to clarify what is meant by “reasonable doubt”. Again, a very good question, on which thousands of learned legal words have been written, and which often confuses juries. Again, the judge was unhelpful: “These are ordinary English words that the law does not allow me to help you with.”

This was a difficult case in which Pryce chose to use an unusual and unfamiliar defence – that of “marital coercion”. The jury were absolutely entitled to ask for clarification and it is no use saying that the judge had already explained the terms involved and what they had to decide. If they asked the questions, he hadn’t done it well enough.

*The questions the jury asked the judge:

You have defined the defence of marital coercion at page 5 and also explained what does not fall within the definition by way of examples.
Please expand upon the definition (specifically “will was overborne”), provide examples of what may fall within the defence, and does this defence require violence or physical threats.
In the scenario where the defendant may be guilty but there is not enough evidence provided by the prosecution at the material time of when she signed the NIP (between 3 and 7 May 2003) to feel sure beyond reasonable doubt what should the verdict be = not guilty or unable/unsafe to provide a verdict?
If there is debatable evidence supporting the prosecution’s case, can inferences be drawn to arrive at a verdict? If so, inferences/speculation on the full evidence or only where you have directed us to do so (eg circumstantial evidence, lies, failure by VP to mention facts to the police).
Can you define what is reasonable doubt?
Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it, either from the prosecution or defence?
Can we infer anything from the fact that the defence didn’t bring witnesses from the time of the offence, such as au pair, neighbours?
Does the defendant have an obligation to present a defence?
Can we speculate about the events at the time VP signed the form or what was in her mind at that time?
Your Honour, the jury is considering the facts provided but have continued to ask the questions raised by the police. Given the case has come to court without answers to the police’s questions, please advise on which facts in the bundle the jury shall consider to determine a not guilty or guilty verdict.
Would religious conviction be a good enough reason for a wife feeling that she had no choice ie she promised to obey her husband in her wedding vows and he had ordered her to do something and she felt she had to obey?

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  • greggf

    “In a multicultural society as the UK is now….”

    Is that a constitutional fact smart? Because our justice system may have difficulties with, for example, incorporation of sharia?

  • greggf

    For your appellation smartmind, you are very free with words that intend to insult, denigrate and shut down discussion in a manner exemplified by bigotry, and not at all smart.

  • greggf

    Everyone knows what “white” means dshan.
    Other reports have stated that most of the jurors had an ethnic background other than white.
    I believe the question posed is whether the standards of jurors from such ethnic backgrounds would be the same as an all white jury.
    For example; some muslims might be inclined to make judgements according to sharia and question 5 might lead some to conclude that.

    The locality might be a clue to the presence of muslims on the jury.

  • Christopher Barrett

    Isn’t one of the big problems with the jury system is that people are forced into doing something very much against their will? While many (probably most) will treat their obligation to serve on a jury very seriously, there are others who will not, so there is a lot of room for error in determining whether a person is guilty or not.

    The other problem of a jury system is that people can be called to serve on a jury more than once, and I know of one case of a person who sat on a jury 5 times. Once should be enough.

    What I do believe in is that a jury should have a say in a guilty person’s sentence. Often the same people come up before the courts time after time.

    If, in theory, a jury is supposed to be independent then should a jury be free from instructions from the judge?

    Finally, is a jury system necessary as many countries (like France and Germany) manage well without them?

  • Colin Eric

    We should have professional juries then this sort of thing would never happen. The idea of “Twelve good men and true” is all very well but in practice most jurors don’t want to be there and many don’t even pay anything like full attention to what is going on. I remember one case that I have experience of where a woman juror during deliberations said that she just wanted to get it all over with so that she could get home and make her husband’s dinner!

  • Christopher Barrett

    This is exactly my point, and you have my thumbs up: most jurors do not want to serve on a jury. A professional jury would at least, in theory, have a better idea whether a defendant is guilty or not.

  • Colin Eric

    Agreed Christopher, you may many good points in your piece.

  • Robert Morgan

    Most commenters here seem to have got the point, that Q5 was written by a foreman to be self-evidently wrong as a warning signal to the judge, presumably to put an erring jurymember straight. It even says “Can a juror…?” when elsewhere in the questions it’s “the jury”. How plain could they make it?

    But Rentoul misses that and writes “The question was not phrased in legal language, but…” as if the poor ignorant fools meant to ask a neat question about relying on general knowledge but couldn’t quite find the words. Read the questions: they’re precise and clearly stated throughout. They asked the question they meant to ask, and yet so many journalists seem to ignore the content of the text. It’s a worry.

    Rentoul decries others for treating this jury as all fools, but he’s doing the same himself.

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