First things first. Given my recent criticisms of Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, I never thought I would be jumping to her defence so readily. However, I praise her brave decision not to pursue Greville Janner to the grave and beyond following the oft-repeated allegations against him of child sexual abuse. She has justified her decision with reference to his age and ill health, as he is now 86 and suffers from Alzheimer’s. The allegations against him go back to the 70’s, so any prosecution would of necessity relive events more than 50 years ago, and in my professional experience, the only evidence to go before a jury would be the allegations of the complainant and Janner’s denial. As he suffers from Alzheimer’s, he is unlikely to remember his own name, let alone what he was doing 50 years ago. There would be no corroboration in the legal sense, so the evidence, such as it is, could not be properly tested. Given the “no smoke without fire” approach likely to be forced upon any jury called to try the case, the pressure on them to convict will be intense and difficult to resist, and any jury brave enough to acquit would be subjected to a media campaign of vilification from the likes of the Daily Mail and its camp followers. On any view, that cannot be justice, but it hasn’t stopped an outcry against Ms. Saunders and threats of a judicial review of her decision. Despite the fact that Ms. Sanders has been dealt a losing hand, I hope she is brave enough to stand her ground. These historical ‘witch hunts’ do our criminal legal system no credit whatsoever.
On the topic of juries, it may have escaped your attention that the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 has received its royal assent, and lurking therein at section 69 et seq are several amendments to the Juries Act 1974. The main thrust is against the use by jurors of ‘electronic communications devices’, also known as the Internet, to research material relevant to the case they are trying, and in addition, sharing the results of their researches with other jurors.
The aim is laudable but nigh on impossible to achieve. The ideal is that an accused person should be convicted or acquitted on the evidence presented by both sides in court and untainted by any outside influences. Juries are told by the judge at the end of the first day that they are not to discuss the case with anybody outside their number until the end of the trial. And what’s the first thing they do as soon as they get home? They discuss the case with their nearest and dearest! It’s human nature. And as the trial goes on and on and on, the more they are going to discuss the evidence with their nearest and dearest and bring them up to date with the latest developments.
With the intrusion of the Internet into every room in the house, it is tempting in the extreme for the average juror to do a little research. In many cases, the Internet is the average Joe’s only form of communication, they can’t communicate unless they are gawping at their hand held devices, and a totally vacant expression is a sine qua non. Unlike his predecessor in title, the average juror is no longer selected because of his station in life, there is therefore no guarantee that he can even read and write, let alone form any rational judgment. It is only natural for him to seek help and guidance from wherever he can find it, and the Internet is an obvious starting point.
Back to Greville Janner. Enough and more has already been written and exposed in the media to fill a sizeable tome. If he were to stand trial, how on earth are twelve honest men and true going to put out of their minds all they have read and heard about the many allegations? Forbidding them to research further on the Internet is slamming shut the stable door well after the horse has bolted, and a fair trial will be impossible. The trial judge will be under enormous pressure to allow the trial to proceed in the face of legitimate objections from Janner’s defence team, and in the likely event of a conviction, the appeal process will follow him into the grave.
The jury system is beset with problems. We are now in the twenty first century, and it’s absurd to think that a piece of legislation can control the way in which juries approach the task for which they are summonsed. If further proof were needed, read the two notes sent to the judge by the jury in the unnamed journalist’s trial where his conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal. It’s called a travesty of justice. I have argued before, and I argue again, for the abolition of trial by jury, and let’s have an end to this nonsense.