Yesterday the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament took evidence on the role of the media in criminal trials. During the session Ian McKee, justice campaigner, made a number of references in support of the idea of introducing professional juries into the Scottish Courts. This is a very bad idea.
The jury was, rightly, described by Aamer Anwar during the session as the “jewel in the crown” of the criminal prosecution system in Scotland. It has featured as a fundamental part of our system for centuries. It is important that people facing serious criminal charges are judged by their peers. The idea of having professional jurors is a repugnant one.
Professional jurors would not resemble the system we have today where local people are drawn at random to sit on a jury and decide on issues of fact placed before them. They would in effect be state employees and would be reliant upon the state for the money that feeds their children and keeps a roof over their head every single month. Yes, jurors currently get reimbursed for losses incurred as a result of sitting on a jury, but this is quite different to relying on the state to pay your wages every single month for sitting on a jury permanently. There is a risk that the independence of the jury from the State is jeopardised. If no actual prejudice occurred, at the very least there would be the appearance of prejudice in the process.
Some of the reasons advanced by Mr McKee for the introduction of professional juries was quite frankly insulting to anyone who has ever sat on a jury. I have very little experience of the court system and certainly none as a practitioner. However, I have (as a fair few law students will have) sat in courts during trials. While I have been sitting watching proceedings juries have always struck me as a largely diligent bunch of folk who are genuinely interested in hearing and understanding the evidence.
There is also a risk of corruption. When you reduce the jury pool to a small number of people rather than everyone in a given area it becomes easier to locate and corrupt jurors. This would undoubtedly be bad for justice.
Any advantages there may be to a system of having professional jurors are undoubtedly outweighed by the disadvantages to the system. The jury system may not be perfect, but no system ever is. However, the system largely works and has done so for centuries.