Monday, June 16, 2008

Column, August 7, 2007

NEVER trust a bull or a policeman was one of my Taid’s favourite sayings.
He was hardly Staylittle’s own version of the Godfather, him being a deacon of the chapel and all, but, one had to be wary with both of them, bulls and coppers.
That might be particularly true if you suspect that one of them is on the jury trying you at Crown Court.
It wouldn’t be easy to tell of course, they don’t file into the jury box wearing their uniform and helmet, that would be altogether too helpful.
However if you caught one of them giving the investigating officers a friendly wave and then going for a pint with them in the lunchtime break, that might give you a hint.
But it’s been revealed that since the law changed in 2004 no fewer than 92 serving police officers from the North Wales Constabulary had served on juries.
Before the law had been changed they couldn’t sit on a jury – nor could peers, lawyers, prisoners and the insane – strange company indeed. Now they still keep madmen off juries, but they allow coppers, lawyers and lords on.
Perhaps they ought to even things out a bit by allowing the occasional old lag to do a stint on a jury. It would make for some interesting, even frightening discussions.
I think we would all like to think that, in the extremely unlikely event that we were to find ourselves in the dock, that the jury would be packed with the likes of Henry Fonda, giving us a reprise of his role in 12 Angry Men and getting us off even though it looked for all the world like it was a fair cop and they’d got us bang to rights.
I suspect that in reality jury service has more of the Tony Hancock about it than the Henry Fonda.
Certainly that is true if the tale of one US jury is anything to go by. Irrevocably split on whether a man was guilty of murder, they resolved their disagreement by tossing a coin – and found him guilty.
And off he would have gone to life in jail (this was at least one of the US states where the death penalty had been abolished) had it not been for one of the jurors who revealed their unusual method to a court usher and so the whole case went to a retrial.
Whether the heads you’re guilty tails you’re not approach is adopted by many UK juries is unknown – because it is, of course, against the law here to even ask a juror how they reached their decision.
This does protect us from jurors coming out with books the minute they deliver their verdict as happened in the USA in the trial of OJ Simpson. But it does stop us finding out quite what goes on in there at all. Even a judge can’t ask the jury how they reached their verdict, no matter how perplexing it might be.
In the past that has been a guard against tyranny – the judges, often establishment figures, might have directed juries in the strongest terms, but there has been a famous streak of independence in juries, who have over the years returned verdicts which might not have stuck to the letter of the law, but which did deliver justice.
The idea of putting policemen, and lawyers and judges for that matter, on juries might on the face of it seem like it delivers an advantage to the prosecution.
But look at it the other way – a policeman, lawyer or judge will bring their skills, experience and common sense to the case and may be able to spot holes in the prosecution case that others did not.
And if a police officer were to be blindly arguing for a guilty verdict, wouldn’t that tend to drive other jurors in the opposite direction?
The jury system is based on trust and while we may suspect that jurors are swayed by all manner of things from tabloid headlines to whatever they might be googling when they get home, we have to trust that when it comes down to it they will give a true verdict.
If we don’t believe they can do this then the only alternative is to abolish juries and have judges acting in their place.
Juries are, in the memorable words of the late Lord Devlin, ‘the lamp that shows that freedom lives’, that here it is a jury of your peers that convict you, not the state.
Rather than being concerned with how many policemen serve on juries – which is a small number compared to the hundreds of others who must have been called – I’d be more concerned about the number of people whose lack of civic responsibility leads them to get themselves out of it on some trumped up excuse.
It’s harder to do now, but it still happens. If we want juries to reflect our society then we need to do the right thing when that summons drops on the doormat.

THE Royal Mail has apologised for the letter it sent to sub-postmasters warning them of the consequences of speaking out against post office closures.
What with threats of undercover agents visiting them to ensure they were toeing the line and withdrawal of compensation as a penalty, it definitely had a whiff of the Cosa Nostra about it.
You could see why the Royal Mail did it though. Sub-postmasters are the hub of many rural communities and if anyone if well-placed to motivate widespread public protest it is the local sub-postmaster.
The village post offices would become virtual headquarters of resistance movements across the UK, organised like cells. Just as the bosses thought they had snuffed out one pocket of resistance, along would come another group of crack pensioner letter-writers taking them to task for their miserable penny-pinching policies that were going to tear rural Wales and England apart.
But they’ve apologised and withdrawn the letter now, so that’s alright then isn’t it? Sub-postmaster can speak out without fear can’t they?
Yeah, right, of course they can. No matter what the Royal Mail says that letter showed the mindset operating among some of its management.
I would suggest that sub-postmasters have got the message loud and clear and now only the bravest will speak for fear of the consequences.
The Royal Mail should lose its ‘Royal’ appendage for the way it is behaving. It has shown itself to be nothing more than any other venal profit-motivated corporation and it does not deserve the respect that a Royal title commands.

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