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New Research Shows Restrictions on Jury Trial to be Racially Discriminatory

Professor Lee Bridges
Originally Published 19 May 2000
A study produced by researchers at the Legal Research Institute, University of Warwick provides clear evidence that Government plans to restrict the right of jury trial will serve to disadvantage ethnic minority defendants. It also contradicts arguments put forward by Home Office ministers that defendants widely abuse the right to elect jury trial. The study is based on a racially-mixed sample of defendants in London, Birmingham, Leeds and Bradford. It shows that:

Very few defendants who elect jury trial can be said to be acting unreasonably or abusing the system. The vast majority were either cleared of all the charges against them (47 per cent) or pleaded guilty after the prosecution had reduced the charges against them (35 per cent), often leading to their receiving lighter sentences.

Defendants who took their cases to jury trial were much more likely to be acquitted than those who elected to be tried before magistrates. Five of the nine elective defendants tried before juries were acquitted, compared with only one in 14 who were acquitted by magistrates following contested trials.

The results for black defendants were even more dramatic. Only 1 in 20 of those who elected Crown Court ended up being convicted of all the original charges, with a further 8 pleading guilty to reduced charges. Eleven of the 20 black defendants were acquitted.

In interviews, ethnic minority defendants expressed much greater confidence in trial at Crown Court, and in juries, than in magistrates. The latter were seen as biased in favour of the police. Juries, particularly if they contained ethnic minority members, were considered more likely to balance out any individual prejudices against black defendants.

A significant effect of electing Crown Court was to bring about a more thorough and objective review of the evidence, often leading to cases being dropped or charges reduced. Judges played a key role in this, as did the prospect of the prosecution evidence being tested before a professional judge and jury. The majority of those cleared at Crown Court were the result of the cases being dropped and/or the judge ordering or directing an acquittal.

The study concludes that, because of the much greater chance of acquittal or charge reduction at Crown Court, denying defendants the right to elect jury trial is likely to result in much higher rates of conviction on the original charges. Ethnic minority defendants face unequal treatment at other stages in the process, such as being charged more often and with more serious offences than whites in similar circumstances. As a result, denying them the right to elect Crown Court will "be racially discriminatory, even if the treatment of ethnic minority defendants at magistrates' courts is not itself unequal".

Note for Editors: Ethnic Minority Defendants and the Right to Elect Jury Trial by Professor Lee Bridges (Director of the Legal Research Institute at the University of Warwick), Professor Mike McConville (Head of the School of Law at the University of Warwick), and Dr Satnam Choongh (Barrister and formerly a Research Fellow in the University of Warwick's Law School is being published by the Commission for Racial Equality on 22 May. It is based on research supported by the Economic and Social Research Council.

For further information contact:
Lee Bridges on 0777 618 2547 or 020 8 693 9663