HL Deb 31 January 1973 vol 338 cc583-5

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how far it is the practice for the judge to ask the jury personal questions before the case begins.


The established practice is set out in a Practice Direction given by the Lord Chief Justice on January 12 last, and which I may perhaps be allowed to quote to the House. The Practice Direction is as follows: A jury consists of 12 individuals chosen at random from the appropriate panel. A juror should be excused if he is personally concerned in the facts of the particular case, or closely connected with a party to the proceedings or with a prospective witness. He may also be excused at the discretion of the judge on grounds of personal hardship or conscientious objection to jury service. It is contrary to established practice for jurors to be excused on more general grounds such as race, religion or political beliefs or occupation.


My Lords, while thanking the noble and learned Lord for that reply, may I ask for some clarification? Does it mean that in future it will not be the practice for a judge to dismiss a juror on grounds of race, religion or political beliefs, or general likes or dislikes?


My Lords, I believe that I can say "Yes" unequivocally to that question. My noble friend talked about "general likes or dislikes", but it could be that a juror might feel that he was unable to discharge his functions as a juror because of some personal prejudice and he would be justified in asking for excusal on such grounds. But normally one assumes in this country, in contradistinction to what is done in some other countries, that a juror is not prevented from trying a case impartially simply because he happens to belong to one religion rather than another, or to no religion rather than one. The same is true of political beliefs and of general opinions. If you are not going to choose jurors at random, it seems to me that you are undermining the whole jury system. That is not the philosophy of some other countries, but it is our philosophy and that is what the Lord Chief Justice was endeavouring to say in much more appropriate language than I have used.


My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Lord what remedy is available if a judge departs from the Practice Direction of the Lord Chief Justice?


My Lords, that is a rather wider question, but I am perfectly sure that no judge will depart from the Practice Direction of the Lord Chief Justice. If so, I will have to scratch my head, which is a very effective remedy.


My Lords, would the noble and learned Lord say whether the statement made by the Lord Chief Justice was made after the case which I think the noble Viscount has in mind, when a rather remarkable series of questions were asked? If so, in view of that statement and in view of the excellent statement which the Lord Chancellor has now made, that seems to deal with our problems. But the practice in the past has been sometimes to ask the wrong questions. It used to be the practice to excuse a man if he said that he objected to capital punishment in a murder case, while no one asked whether a jury was passionately in favour of capital punishment, which would surely equally disqualify them.


My Lords, the mere fact that one is in favour of capital punishment in general does not mean that one is in favour of hanging everybody. But in response to the first question which the noble Lord asked, the Practice Direction was given on January 12; and if he is referring to the so-called "Angry Brigade" case, the questions in that case were put last summer. It was, of course, partly as a result of that and two other cases—it was not an isolated example—that the Lord Chief Justice felt it proper to make a Practice Direction about the subject. If he had not done so, I rather suspect that we should be slipping into the American position where they spend a considerable time selecting jurors, the general purpose of which seems to be to ensure a partial and not an impartial jury.


My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack whether, in view of a Press report quite recently about a juror who had to be discharged half-way through a case because he was not able to hear properly, it might not be desirable for the judge or somebody else to inquire into matters of that kind?


My Lords, in my experience it is possible to tell whether or not a juror can hear by the way he takes the Oath. I always exercised my right of challenge when I was defending and a juror was manifestly deaf, and I imagine that the prosecution would stand by for the Crown or, if they did not, that the judge would intervene. The Oath, as the House knows, is read to the juror and that is the moment at which one usually detects defects of sight or hearing.

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