Thursday, 25 November 2010

Will the internet really kill the jury system?

There have been dire warnings in the press that use of the internet is putting the jury system at risk. There seem to be two components to these legal worries. One is jury members discussing a trial while it's underway on social networking, the other is the dangers of jurors researching elements of the trial online.

The first of these is a genuine concern, but one that was always there, magnified by the power of social networking. It has always been possible for jurors to gossip with friends and relations about their thoughts on the trial, which clearly has potential dangers in close-knit communities. However, the social networking dimension does magnify the effect, particularly if a broadcast-style network like Twitter is involved. It has to be drummed into the jurors that it is a no-no.

But the second aspect is more complex. Unless the legal system believes that jurors have totally blank minds when they come to the court, they will already have a limited set of knowledge overlapping the context of the trial. If, for example, I was a juror in a trial that depended on statistical evidence, I would have a better chance of understanding it, and any flaws in it (in all probability) than a typical juror.

Some of the 'information' the jurors come pre-loaded with will be incorrect. In many ways it could be advantageous to getting a good hearing if they do research topics, particularly where it's a technical trial, or one that hinges on the evidence of expert witnesses. Yes, there is a danger that jurors will be swayed by some blogger baying for the death penalty or whatever, but the chances are, if they tend to look for this, they will already have been steeped in whatever the sensibility is. However, researching facts is a different matter.

The lawyers argue that this should be a good, ancient Greek style conflict, with presentations by the opposing barristers in the courtroom the only influence the jury's decision. This is an out of date and frankly naive approach. It would be much better if the juries had the best possible understanding of the technicalities that are being discussed. This is unlikely to be provided by biassed barristers. They aren't interested in the jury getting the best understanding, they want, if possible, to mislead the jury to get a result. Not only should we stop discouraging jurors from going online, we should actively help them to research the topics properly, so they can make an informed decision, not the judgement of an idiot, swayed by hot air.


  1. Isn't there a danger some of these sources on the internet will be wrong, or at least badly explained? I'm all for educating jurors - I'm sure it would make us all better judges - but I think their educational material should be checked for accuracy.

  2. Any source could be wrong. Many internet sources are more reliable than tabloid newspapers or some TV news, for example.

  3. Also quite a lot of expert witnesses have been wrong - as in the mothers accused of murdering their babies on a misuse of statistics.

  4. True, I agree some internet sites can be a much more reliable source than tabloids (or even, sometimes, the 'quality' papers). It's just so much more difficult to filter the wheat from the chaff on the internet - I think most people would need a lot of guidance.

  5. I think that's just a life statement, Clare. From school onwards, all people now need guidance on sorting wheat from chaff on the internet. I don't think we should make a distinction for jury service.