HL Deb 19 February 1998 vol 586 cc307-9

3.15 p.m.

Lord Borrie asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proposals they have for the repeal of Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 so as to permit independent and authoritative research into the working of juries in civil and criminal cases.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, my noble friend knows as well as any of your Lordships the controversy that has surrounded this issue in the past. He addressed it in his own work, Law of Contempt, in 1973, which I studied in its first edition at the time and was pleased to see yesterday has now reached its third edition.

Section 8 provides that: it is a contempt of court to obtain, disclose or solicit any particulars of statements made, opinions expressed, arguments advanced or votes cast by members of a jury in the course of their deliberations". That statutory provision was introduced in your Lordships' House by way of amendments. The Government have no plans to repeal Section 8. On the other hand, the Government would listen with care to any proposals for forms of jury research and to representations about the need for amendment to Section 8 to permit the research proposed.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, in thanking my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor for that response, perhaps I may ask him whether the present Government have considered the proposal of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice of five years ago which said that such research was desirable because informed debate is better than argument based, as they put it, on surmise and anecdote? Further, bearing in mind the Government's own consultation paper of three days ago on serious fraud trials, in which several of the options put forward by the Government include the elimination or restriction of jury trials, would it not be better to have research into how juries reach their verdicts before the Government reach decisions on such important matters?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, we are well aware of what the 1993 Runciman Royal Commission on Criminal Justice had to say about Section 8 and we have noticed that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, in his press interview on assuming office in 1996 indicated that he would favour some form of limited jury research. In that, he departed from the views of his two immediate predecessors. We believe that he would support no more than researchers, licensed, say, by the Lord Chancellor, interviewing jurors post-trials to ascertain their level of understanding of the issues in the case on terms that neither the case nor the jurors interviewed would be identified in the research. I see that my noble friend nods his head: I believe that that is the position with which he would associate himself.

I am asked about the consultation paper issued a few days ago on juries in serious fraud trials. That consultation paper recognised the limitations imposed by Section 8. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible that views could be expressed about jury trials in serious fraud cases that would be free-standing and not dependent upon jury research—for example, that the cases are too long and too much for juries, as for example in the Blue Arrow case, or that there is an unfairness to the prosecution in having to divide the total picture of criminality into separate parts so that the whole picture does not come in front of the jury, as perhaps exemplified by the Maxwell case. It would be possible therefore for the view to emerge that the general advantages of juries in serious criminal cases are outweighed by the disadvantages in that class of case, regardless of any research.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does not the noble and learned Lord agree that it would be embarking upon a dangerous course to follow the suggestion of research into jury judgments? After all, one would be inquiring into their judgment. When a jury retires no notes are taken of its deliberations and it may be out for days. What transpires in its verdict is its general view of the whole case. Has not that been one of the great safeguards of justice within our country? The noble and learned Lord may agree that to embark on a judgment that is described as independent and authoritative would be extremely misleading. Very often, as I am sure the experience of many who practice at the Bar illustrates, jury verdicts—often against the whole tendency of the media—are correct in their eventual judgment.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I believe that there is general public confidence in the jury system in serious criminal trials and that the only major contemporary question is whether serious fraud trials should be made an exception. I also feel strongly that jury service is a major civic duty involving the public in deciding questions of fact about guilt or innocence, and that gives the public great confidence in the administration of criminal justice. The Government are also conscious of the main arguments against jury research; namely, that jury service is burdensome enough for members of the public without jurors being interrogated about the ebb and flow of their deliberations in the jury room.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that the system may be brought into disrepute not by what juries say and do, but by what lawyers and judges say and do? To address the problem of fraud trials by withdrawing cases from juries is rather like responding to malpractices in horse-racing by shooting the horse.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I agree that the sins of others in the administration of justice are visible and that juries deliberate in private. That is why some say that jury research is required.