Could Covid lead to a cut in the size of juries?

The tradition of juries comprising 12 people is centuries old.

The statue of Lady Justice atop the Old Bailey
The statue of Lady Justice atop the Old Bailey

The most senior judge in England and Wales has questioned whether “low-grade” cases need 12 jurors.

Lord Burnett of Maldon said Covid-19 had exacerbated a backlog of crown court cases with around 57,000 outstanding as of April.

He said “an opportunity was missed to introduce a temporary reduction in jury size”, and questioned whether such a move could still be brought in.

The right to a jury trial was enshrined in the Magna Carta
The right to a jury trial was enshrined in the Magna Carta (Salisbury Cathedral/PA)

Here, the PA news agency answers questions around the idea.

– How long has the jury system worked?

Juries have been a staple of the justice system for centuries with the right of someone being tried “by the lawful judgment of his peers” enshrined in the Magna Carta.

But the origins of juries, and the requirement of them being composed of a dozen people, predates 1215.

A declaration by Athelred the Unready, King between 978 and 1013, refers to “twelve senior thegns (noblemen)” going out, “swear on the relic that is given them in hand, that they will accuse no innocent man, nor conceal any guilty one”.

– Who can sit on a jury?

The days of juries being noblemen are gone, as is discrimination on the basis of gender and, from 1919, women were allowed to sit on juries in England.

According to a report printed in the New York Times of the first case where women were empanelled in Bristol in 1920, the prosecuting counsel caused a murmur when he replaced the often used phrase “Gentlemen of the jury” with the more inclusive “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury”.

Now, those aged between 18-75, ordinarily resident in the UK, and who are British, Irish or Commonwealth citizens and registered to vote can serve on juries, unless they are disqualified or excused.

Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany on September 3 1939, two days after legislation cutting the numbers on a jury to seven
Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany on September 3 1939, two days after legislation cutting the numbers on a jury to seven (PA Archive)

– Can cases be heard by juries of less than 12?

Criminal trials can, and often are, heard by less than 12 people in England and Wales. This was enshrined in the Criminal Justice Act 1925 which allowed for trials to continue if a juror died or was “incapable of continuing to act” through illness.

The law of nearly a century ago said the number of jurors had to be at least 10 and this was brought down to nine in the Juries Act 1974.

– What happened during the Second World War?

An emergency piece of legislation was brought in ahead of war with Germany which would ultimately be given Royal Assent on the day Germany invaded Poland – September 1, 1939.

It reduced the requirement of juries to consist of 12 to seven except where a judge thought a dozen were needed “by reason of the gravity of the matters in issue”, or the trial was on treason or murder charges.

– What happens elsewhere?

A dozen jurors may be common across the world, but some places sit with fewer or more. Scotland, for example, has a system of 15 jurors with a simple majority of eight being enough for conviction.

– Has the idea of reducing juries been mooted before?

Yes, as recently as January. Shadow justice secretary David Lammy called on the Government to restore “wartime juries” to help the backlog.

He said: “Labour is calling on the Government to tackle the backlog by speeding up the rollout of Nightingale courts and temporarily introducing wartime juries of seven until the pandemic is over.”

But Derek Sweeting, chairman of the Bar Council, said at the time “tampering with juries” should be a “last resort”, adding: “Reducing the size of juries risks diluting that experience and denting confidence in our justice system.”

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