Trial by jury – is technology undermining the justice system?

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The Attorney General (the Attorney General is the chief legal advisor to the Crown and the government of England and Wales), Dominic Grieve QC, has expressed significant concerns over the current system of trial by jury in the judicial system. This is due to concerns over the influence technology can have on jurors during a trial.

So what is the problem?

There are a number! The UK legal system is one conceived a long time ago, well before the development of the internet and smart phones. Trial by jury relies upon the jury being influenced only by the evidence they hear at trial – this is very important because there will be some evidence they are not meant to hear that has been specifically excluded from the trial. The development of smart phones and the internet has come to undermine this somewhat, allowing jurors to ‘google’ or search social media sites for the defendant. This could pull up a huge amount of information about a defendant that could subjectively prejudice the juror against the defendant, or alternatively, paint the defendant in a favourable light. Either way, this is not the way the system is supposed to work and the jurors should base their verdict on an objective assessment of the evidence presented to them at trial, not on what they can find via google! The problem is that the trial process is not equipped to deal with what information people can receive from the internet, particularly when most jurors will be equipped with a smartphone capable of searching for information whilst they are on the bus on the way to court!

This is a real problem and the availability of prejudicial material available to jurors during a trial is a real concern.

What is the solution?

Well, the ideal solution is for jurors to show restraint and refrain from searching details of the defendant during the trial and basing their decision solely on the information before them in court. However, this is not that straight forward as it relies heavily on every juror taking their duty seriously and not all jurors do; some have received prison sentences for conducting online searches during a trial. Another possible solution is to reduce the use of trial by jury but this could pose further problems and would undermine the application of justice in many cases. Short of locking the jurors in a room with no television, phone or internet access for the duration of the trial there is no clear answer! What is clear is the problem needs addressing because the right to a fair trial has the potential to be seriously prejudiced if “trial by google” continues ! The internet has come under attack a lot recently, particularly the social media aspect of the internet. If you’re interested in the relationship between the internet and the law have a look at our other blogs!

All information is correct on the date of posting.