Weekly Western Gazette Column

I told the story a few months ago of my slightly calamitous attempt to ring the bell at the re-opening of the Castle Cary cemetery chapel, only to find that an excess of zeal on my part had separated the bell-rope from the bell which stayed resolutely un-rung up above. Perhaps with that experience in mind, I was kept well away from the newly refurbished bells at All Saints’ church in Martock on Sunday when I went to help celebrate the very considerable amount of work, and money, that’s gone into getting them in working order again. It’s the second time over recent years I’ve been to a bell re-dedication ceremony, the last time being at Isle Abbotts a few years ago.

There is something quintessentially English about a full ring of church bells, and I think the appeal goes well beyond the congregation of regular churchgoers. I’m sure there are some who simply don’t recognise the charms of bell-ringing and think it’s all a plot to wake them up on a Sunday morning, but a church tower in which the bells are silent is somehow, for me at least, incomplete. So, at the risk of incurring the wrath of those seeking a lie-in in Martock, Bower Hinton or Stapleton, I for one welcome what’s been done to get the bells of Martock back into working order, and congratulate all concerned.

One of the subjects that has kept me busy over the years has been the justice system. Indeed, for a while I was Shadow Lord High Chancellor, which I always felt had a suitably Gilbert and Sullivan ring about it, and greatly enjoyed it, despite on occasion being accused of being a lawyer as a consequence, a charge I firmly refute. At the moment I serve on the house of commons select committee on justice, which means that I help to scrutinise what is done by the ministry of justice in respect of courts and prisons. It is interesting, and important, work, even if it seldom hits the headlines; the sort of painstaking effort which is completely invisible to those who think the work of parliament extends only to the nonsenses of Prime Minister’s questions each week.

One of the recurrent themes of government policy over many years now has been an apparent determination to remove from the judicial system what some see as one of its most fundamental principles, that of trial by jury. Thee have been repeated attempts to remove jury trial for certain categories of offences, each of which I have resisted, simply because I think that having a jury made up of twelve ordinary people drawn at random is the very best defence we have against arbitrary judgements. Of course it is for the judges and the lawyers to determine points of law. But it is the men and women of the jury who determine the facts of a case, having heard the evidence, and that is a very valuable safeguard. Yes, it is sometimes frustrating for prosecutors and police officers, but if they cannot persuade twelve fair-minded people of the strength of their case, then no defendant should lose heir liberty as a result.

Given the clear mood of ministers that juries cannot be trusted, the results of research, the first done in detail on modern jury trial, is particularly encouraging. The researchers looked in depth at what actually goes on in court, how juries reach a decision, and what problems are experienced on the way, looking at 68,000 jury verdicts. And, lo and behold, juries come out rather well. Are juries fair? Yes, the answer is that they are. They make up their minds properly. Contrary to the popular view, they convict more often than they acquit, even in cases such as rape. They take a great deal of care in determining the defendant’s state of mind. They don’t discriminate.

Some problems are flagged up. Too often jurors don’t understand what judges are telling them. That’s a problem for the judges, not the jury. They can be influenced by media reporting, which is an issue for editors who ought to be much more careful about pre-judging high profile cases. And, bizarrely, they found that members of juries too often search around on the internet or help, which may not be such a good idea, although it’s probably better than asking their mates down the pub.

But all in all, juries get the thumbs up, which I for one welcome. Of course, there are cases which are not tried in front of a jury already – lower level cases heard by magistrates for instance. But if there is a real chance of a serious conviction, then it is reassuring to know that there is a role for the ordinary citizen in establishing innocence or  guilt, and that those asked to do so take the responsibility seriously. It’s one of those old-fashioned rights in this country that we ought to take a lot more seriously than we do.

There are many problems with our judicial system – I’m currently battling yet again, for instance, to keep local courts open, which I think is a very important component of justice locally administered. Trials are still far too often delayed or protracted. And the decisions of prosecuting authorities are often opaque and anything but understood by the victims of crime. But if juries are not something we should be worried about, and it is clear from this research that they are not, then I would be very much obliged if government ministers would stop trying to undermine them or, worse, remove them.

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