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The jury in criminal cases

What type of cases can be tried by a jury?

Although juries are very important in the criminal justice system, they actually deal only in a minority of the cases.

Criminal offences are classified into three categories.

  • “Summary” offences are the minor offences and less serious and are triable only in the magistrate’s courts. For example minor traffic offences.

  • The most serious kind of offences is “indictable only” which must be tried in the Crown Court.

  • Between these extremes kinds there is another kind of offences called as “triable either way.” Such cases, as it is clear from the name, can be tried either in the magistrate’s courts if the magistrates are willing to hear the case and the defendant consents or in the Crown Court. In these cases, the defendant has the right to insist on being tried in the Crown Court, so either the magistrates or the defendant can opt for trial in the Crown Court. Jury can try a case in the Crown Court and if the defendant pleads not guilty, and the trial proceeds further, he or she will be tried before a jury.

What's the percentage of cases tried by a jury?

The majority of the criminal cases are summary only because they are least serious and commonly committed, and as a result the majority of the cases are heard in the magistrates courts, where the juries have no role (this also includes those cases in which accused pleads guilty in either way offences).

We can therefore see how only a small number of cases are heard in the Crown Court, but even at that point we have to consider that in the majority of the cases either defendant pleads guilty -so there is no need of a jury- or the judge directs the jury that law demands that they acquit the defendant. As a result the juries actually decide only a very small percentage of criminal cases.

It is very difficult to answer that why defendants opt for Crown Court trial instead of a magistrate court, but research shows that there is a perception that there are more chances of acquittal before a jury than before a magistrate. This perception is born out by statistical evidence showing acquittal rates of approximately 40% in jury trials as compared with 25% in magistrate’s courts.

What's the current situation about trial by jury?

Apart from its historical role in the English legal system, jury trial is under attack in recent years. Governments have attempted to reduce the use of juries in criminal cases in order to save money.

Since 1977, more and more cases have been removed from the jury trail by making them summary only. Criminal Justice Act has increased the sentencing power of the magistrate from 6 months to 12 months in a single offence and this could be increased further to 18 months by delegated legislation.

The purpose behind this is that more cases will be tried in the magistrate’s courts rather than being referred up to Crown Court to be tried by an expensive jury. Another step to reduce the number of jury trials is the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which also allows trial by judge alone in the crown court in two situations:

Where a serious risk of jury tempering exists; or where the case involves complex or lengthy financial and commercial arrangements.

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