The Vicky Pryce jury proves the system works

Independent on Sunday, 24 February 2013

Hang on a minute: I know we’re all guffawing over the behaviour of the jury in the trial of Vicky Pryce, but are there really grounds for assuming that something went badly wrong? Hilarious as some of their questions to the judge appeared to be, it’s possible to come to a very different conclusion, namely that the system actually worked rather well.

In this scenario, which seemed to get the support of the former lord chief justice of England and Wales, Lord Woolf, on Radio 4′s Today programme, the jury’s questions were not the product of startling naivety. They look more like a successful attempt by one or more of the jurors to alert the judge to the fact that the discussion in the jury room was going in alarming directions.

In Latin grammar, the word “num” at the beginning of a sentence indicates that it requires a negative answer. Several of the jury’s questions appeared to fall into this category, inviting a robust response. The wording of one – “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?” – almost demands that Mr Justice Sweeney answer “No”, if not dismiss the jury on the spot.

Another of the questions offered the biggest clue to what may have happened during the jury’s secret discussions. When jurors are selected, there’s a tacit assumption that they’re acting on behalf of the state. English law is secular and Ms Pryce, whose trial starts again tomorrow, isn’t accused of an offence laid down in the Bible or the Koran. She’s accused of the common law offence of perverting the course of justice, which she denies on the unusual ground of marital coercion.

So why did the jury ask whether “religious conviction” was a reason for a wife to feel that she had no other choice but to obey her husband? The judge’s response was brusque and unequivocal: “This is not, with respect, a question about this case at all.” He’s right, and a reasonable inference is that one or more of the jurors had strong religious convictions which they intended to use when reaching a verdict.

This is supported by a report in the Daily Mail, which revealed that the jury rose 30 minutes early on two occasions because a juror had to keep a “religious observance”. And while it doesn’t matter a jot if most of the jury were of Afro-Caribbean or Asian origin, as the paper also claimed, it does matter if some jurors were judging the case not on the facts and the law, but through the prism of personal religious conviction.

If I do something wrong, I want – and, indeed, I have a right – to be judged according to secular law. If jurors are regularly bringing religion into the jury room, I’d be very worried indeed, and there’s clearly a case for further research in this area. But in this instance, at least, it looks as if someone blew the whistle – and that strikes me as a vindication of the system.

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