After the David Bain trial the world seemed to go mad. It seemed everyone had an opinion on whether or not he'd done the deed. Except for me, it seemed - I still don't. A good number of people came to the conclusion that the acquittal was a monstrous injustice (perhaps forgetting the 13 years Bain had already served behind bars), and that we ought to do away with the jury system forthwith.
But there are some good reasons why we have a jury system for criminal trials. The notion of being tried by one's peers is an important one in our system. Judges may be legally trained, but like everyone they have prejudices. Judges tend to be drawn from the higher echelons of society, so may not always be the best judges of what goes on at the lower end.
And having someone in a position to determine what the decider of facts can consider may be important. Judges frequently make decisions on what evidence the jury may hear. If the judge is also to decide on the facts, how will a judge be able to put out of his or her mind the evidence they may have just ruled inadmissible?
In Britain this week, however, the first crown court criminal trial to take place without a jury in more than 400 years has just begun.
The background behind the case is highly unusual. The
case involves four men accused of a £1.75m armed robbery. But three previous jury trials have had to be aborted, following various illnesses, the loss of jurors, and
allegations of jury tampering.
So the Court of Appeal has ruled that there will be no jury for the trial.
This ruling flies in
the face of the principle that a person has the right to be tried before
his/her peers, and is hugely controversial. But it remains to be seen whether this case is precedent-setting or a one-off.
In New Zealand the Crimes Act 1961 provides that everyone charged with an offence is entitled to trial by jury. There are some exceptions, where the accused may elect not to have a jury trial.
But until recently the right to dispense with a jury was the accused's prerogative. However, in 2008 the Crimes Act was amended so that the prosecution is now entitled to seek trial by judge alone where necessary due to the complexity or length of the case, or where there are reasonable grounds to believe the intimidation of jurors might occur.
So it seems we may be going in a similar direction.