History and Present Time Jury


A jury is a body of people that have been sworn to render impartial verdicts on any question submitted to them by the relevant court. They handle matters that involve setting penalties or delivering judgments. Nowadays, juries are mostly found to determine the guilt or its absence in the criminal cases. An important aspect of the jury is that it is not composed to professionals but as “lay men” who are not professionals within the legal spectrum. A trial by jury is normally a legal proceeding, where a jury considers facts on any particular case. After that the trial judge uses the facts in that particular case to make a decision. At the same time, a decision that is discretionally upheld by the judge can be also made by the jury. These discretions are mostly common in the civil cases and in limited jurisdictions like the U.S., where in civil trial a presiding judge can set aside a jury’s verdict, for example, with regard to how much money is awarded to the plaintiff in terms of damages. This paper attempts to give a clear history of the jury system, how it came into existence, problems it faces, triumphs and other issues revolving around the jury system. It will also highlight the present day jury system in criminal trials.

History of Trials by Jury

Jury systems can be traced back to 978 in England to the times of king, Ethelred the Unready (Forsyth and Morgan, 1994). He actually laid a legal system which in connection with the wantage code provided for twelve positions of leading thegns better known as (minor nobles) from small districts known as wapentake. It was obligatory for these nobles to swear. The reason for this swearing was an official declaration of their impartial and unbiased decisions while conducting investigation of any one crime. The major difference between the modern and the historical jurors is that the historical jurors informed themselves by conducting investigations thus self informing, while the present ones actually listen to the cases first in the court room and have no responsibility of getting information or facts of the case prior to the hearing (Forsyth and Morgan, 1994).

The idea of the jury system came up in a crude sense after the Norman Conquest. However, its earlier function differed greatly from how it is known today. Only under Henry II, the jury began to acquire an important purpose in the courts, the jury transitioned from mere reporting of events and giving information. They gradually evolved to what they are today. In the 12th century, King Henry II developed the system by the introduction of the “grand jury” courtesy of his Assize of Clarendon. Here hundreds of free men were charged with responsibility of reporting crimes that they knew of to the, “justice in Eyre”.

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The jury system is actually a product of the English law. It is considered to be one of the distinctive features of the Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. It has been accorded a name by some as “the favorite child of the English law”. The principal behind the jury system is that “no man should be condemned except by the voice of his fellow citizens”. The jury systems have actually existed for more than 1000 years now in our judicial and legal system. Initially, before they evolved to what we know them today, the juries were used more in the provision of information and local knowledge (Forsyth and Morgan, 1994). It has actually been stated that “they acted more as witnesses than decision makers”. In the mid 15th century, partial independence of the jury was realized, and at the end of this century most tenets of the jury systems were advantageously regarded as key characteristics of the English common law, and many courts now also allowed objection by parties to any selected persons in the jury. This objection eliminated the challenge of personal enemies in the jury. In the 17th century the jury was even more independent, for a reason that they could return a verdict that did not necessarily reflect the trial judge’s view without a fear of imprisonment or fines.

The importance of the jury became evident in the United States after the revolutionary war. And from there henceforth the jury system has formulated a key part of the American law. The jury system is a combination of the rules of law with mere common sense of the private civilian. This combination is beneficial to the law as it is to the community on the merit of their interaction. They had actually become autonomous and had assumed their roles as we know them today. By this time, the juries were very independent and could actually perform their roles as deciders and assessors in the court, on contrary to the previous “witness” like positions they held (Forsyth and Morgan, 1994).

The development in independence of the juries can actually be traced to the case law. Consider the Bushell’s Case (1670), in this case the jury that heard this matter found the defendant an activist, “not guilty”. However, the trial judge failed to accept this verdict, and moreover, ordered back the jurors to their confines without food or even drinks so as they could  revaluate their decision. However, the jurors still did not convict him and the judge this time fined them and imprisoned them till their fines were cleared. The court of common pleas on appeal ordered jurors to be released. It also affirmed that jurors following their verdict could not be punished. This decision established a principal that a judge could not unreasonably challenge a jury’s verdict.

Similarly in the case of R v McKenna (1960) this case involved a trial judge that threatened the jury with imprisonment if they failed to return with a verdict after 10 minutes. After the ten minutes the jury returned with a verdict of defining individual under trial to be guilty. However, this verdict was quashed by the judge appeal based on the reason of interference by the trial judge. Comparatively, under the American jurisdiction, the relevance of a jury depended on the type of case in question. Under the English common law at the time of the American Revolution war allowed jury systems only in common law courts unlike those of equity that were headed by the chancellor. However, in English jurisdiction jury systems are rarely used nowadays. The jury system evolved inside the common law system compared to civil law systems. The American civil procedure and criminal procedure have actually been modified to fit the requirements on the principals involved in the jury system (Forsyth and Morgan, 1994).

Presently, in The United States the right to a jury is constitutional in nature (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004). That is in American law is embedded in the bills of rights and establish the seriousness of this concept in that jurisdiction. The sixth amendment establishes rights that are to be accorded to an individual in criminal cases at the federal levels, similarly the fourteenth amendment, on ratification, has also provided this right even at the state level for jury trials. The Magna Carta can largely be attributed to have a substantial influence on the founders of this concept in the American jurisdiction (Vidmar and Hans, 2007). America can actually be said to be the most committed to the idea of jury systems, other jurisdictions are reluctant to adopt this system even in the birth place of the concept, and things are done quite differently as compared to the United States. The United States of America have wholesomely accepted this concept contrary to other jurisdictions (Vidmar and Hans, 2007). For example, both America and England share the 12 person concept on jury. Recent changes have allowed the possibility of a verdict that is non-unanimous. This is only possible at the discretion and prudence of the judge. If analysis and pondering over any matter transcends a certain point, the judge can instruct a jury that it is legal and that the outcome of the verdict can be presented based on the 10-2 vote. However, this is very different in other countries which actually have stipulations on which specific crimes require a jury and which do not. Sometimes it has been argued that other jurisdiction feel uncomfortable with letting their peers decide their fate as they are not vast in the legal profession and are uneducated in that field (Vidmar and Hans, 2007).

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The American jury system has evolved over time. Reforms have actually caught the eye of many analysts. The jury system was primarily male dominated. Traditional jury system has changed and has actually accommodated women into it. However, this was not enough simply because most accused persons especially in criminal matter feel that the jury is not truly a depiction by representation of one’s peers, and this to some extent may be a good thing. The argument is that it would be unfair if a man is only tried by other men of his status and occupation. Historically and, especially in the 1990s, United States courts comprised white juries that have been convicting all black people of crimes which they had taken little or no part in, simply because they were black. It is important to note that the jury is supposed to protect citizens from arbitral convictions.

Similar case law has actually questioned the fairness of law systems emphasizing the jury system like America and other similar jurisdictions. It was actually stunning to witness the acquittal of the defendant in the Rodeney King’s case, with all evidence supported his conviction backed even by video records. The other case study is the very controversial acquittal of O.J Simpsons. This two cases lead to question of the constitution, independence and fairness of a jury and more so, how is the jury selected. And would it be possible to get 12 independent minds free of influence and perversion by the media at this day and age, where media ideology take a large impact on people’s thoughts. To solve this mode of problem it has been stated that if the matter was to be heard in a different area, free of this “perversion”. A different area of reform at present day American jury system would be on the comfort of jurors if they feel intimidated.

History of the Jury System

The jury system has existed legally for over a millennium now. At the beginning, they were applied in the provision of local knowledge and information. They also acted as witnesses and not decision making as they are now. By the mid of 15th century, the jury system had changed fully to independent assessors and took up their current responsibility of deciding facts (Forsyth and Morgan, 1994).

Independence of the Jury

As it is seen in Bushell’s Case of 1670, independent jurors declined to pass a guilty verdict on Quaker activists of illegal assembly. The trial judge refused to accept the verdict and directed the jurors to carry on their considerations without food or drink. When they stood their ground on the matter, persisting in their earlier verdict, the trial judge fined the entire jury and sent them to jail until the fines were paid. Upon appeal, the Court of Common Pleas directed their release holding that jurors were not to subjected to punishment for the verdict they made. Another case R v McKenna in 1960 shows a trial judge who threatened to lock up the jury if they did not make a verdict in 10 minutes. Later they gave a guilty verdict which was overruled on appeal on the basis of the interference from the judge.

Currently, cases tried to use the jury system rather rarely. Crown court cases involving serious criminals normally constitute of 12 jurors so does the high court trying to fraud cases. County courts which also try to fraud cases consist of 8 jurors while the coroners’ court consists of about 11 jurors (Hans and Vidmar, 2001). 

Prior to the Morris Committee report in 1972 concerning the Jury service, they were required to have property so as to qualify to be a juror (Hans and Vidmar, 2001). Therefore, women and young individuals who could hardly own property were locked out from jury service. The criminal justice act of 1972 widened the qualification and was based on the individual’s right to vote. In the present world, to qualify for jury service, one must be above 18 years but less than 70, must be a registered voter, and must be a resident within the UK as stipulated under the Juries Act of 1974. An insane person and one who has been disqualified from jury are not eligible for the jury service.


In order to get a disqualification from serving as a juror in Britain, one must have been sentenced for life imprisonment, life detention, served more than five years (Hans and Vidmar, 2001), or had an extended sentence. If in the past decade a member served an imprisonment sentence, or had a suspension sentence passed against them, or had a community sentence against them, then that individual is disqualified for 10 years. Disqualification also applies to anyone who currently is out on bail in a criminal case. Lack of disclosure from a potential juror who is under the disqualified category may attract a fine of up to £5000. Deaf people are also disqualified from the jury service as a translator in the jurors room would amount to contempt of court.  

Criticisms of the Selection of Juries

In the selection of juries, certain procedures are observed in the bid to include a representative sample of the entire population. Such measures include the use of the electoral register which, however, excludes those who are not registered like the homeless or other minority groups which are not registered voters. Another criticism is the fact that getting a multi-racial jury is quite hard as the judge may not have that power. Another complication is the fact that most disqualified jurors still sit in the panel without disclosing this fact, thereby bending the rules. Also, if there are too many excusals from the jury service, an unrepresentative jury may inadvertently be formed.

Advantages of Jury Trial

The jury trial has several advantages that make it exist despite the many criticisms. It enjoys public confidence as it expresses democracy in the society (Abramson, 2000). Most people have a lot of confidence in the jury system. Another advantage is the equity of the jury which allows jurors to make verdicts on the present case not basing it to other past cases and also do not have to issue reasons for their verdict. In addition to the above, having a jury trial is seen as making the judicial system open for public participation, thereby reducing probabilities of corruption and also keeps the law clearer. The jury also enjoys secrecy, thereby reducing undue pressure in all their discussions and verdicts (Abramson, 2000). The jury does not get case hardened as they only sit for a fortnight and may only try 2 or 3 cases.

Disadvantages of Jury Trial

Several problems are encountered when using the jury system in trying cases. A jury may arrive to a perverse verdict where law may be ignored. In other cases, for example, in 1991 R v Randle and Pottle the jury failed to convict in a clear situation. Another problem is that the verdict arrived by the jury does not involve an explanation and the secrecy means that even if there was injustice then the public will never learn about it. In most cases jurors also have no interest in the defendant or the plaintiff. However, racial bias or any other stereotype may be revealed which would consequently prevent justice. Jurors are expected to be in a neutral position so as to make a just decision. However, media coverage on a certain high profile case may influence jurors to make prejudiced judgement creating a problem of injustice. In addition to the mentioned disadvantages, the jurors may fail to understand the case in trial, particularly fraud cases where complex accounting problems may be encountered. The jurors themselves may be against the system of using the jury as it is quite unpopular and, therefore, make biased verdicts. Apart from being a very expensive procedure, most people fear that the jury acquits so many people who would otherwise be locked up. In civil cases, the jury may have a wrong assessment of liability or amount of damages caused particularly because they do not have to issue a reason for their conclusion on the matter.

Alternatives to Trial by Jury

To many individuals, the jury system lacks fairness and professionalism as the jurors are not trained judges. Therefore, alternatives to balance this aspect are considered to prevent the feeling of unfairness and lack of trust in the judicial system. Instead of using the jury system, the judiciary may opt to use a single judge for the trial, employ a panel of judges where the matter is complicated, and try a case using a judge and lay assessors or then a mini jury where the normal number is slashed by almost half.


In conclusion, countries, for example, the United States that use the jury system have to be very careful, and especially when the selection of the juror is done. The jurors have power to make decision that are consequence bearing. The effect of any such decision presents itself as the position of the whole judicial system and structure. Hence, proper guidance on the point of laws from the presiding judge is paramount. If jury systems could satisfy that “no man should be condemned except by the voice of his fellow citizens” without bias and influence then the jury system would be without doubt the best.

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