“Perverse verdicts” in Jury Trials

This post was contributed by Ms Charlotte Crilly, Module Convenor for Legal system and method.

How important is the principle of the independence of the jury?

A recent jury verdict, the acquittal of “the Colston Four”, has caused controversy, including vehement criticism from the UK government. The case arose from four protesters toppling a large statue of a historic slave trader, Edward Colston, during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020 in the city of Bristol, in England. The four protesters did not deny that they had helped to pull down the statute and throw it into the city’s harbour, but they pleaded not guilty to the offence of criminal damage.

Gavel

By a majority verdict of eleven votes to one, the jury acquitted the four protesters.

Members of parliament from the Conservative Party expressed their outrage at the decision. One minister said that a perceived “loophole” in the law would be closed, to limit the prosecution of people who damage memorials and, in the words of the minister, to ensure that people “can’t just go round and cause vandalism, destroy the public realm, and then essentially not be prosecuted”. Another Conservative member of parliament argued that  “We undermine the rule of law, which underpins our democracy, if we accept vandalism and criminal damage are acceptable forms of political protest.”

The Attorney General stated that she was considering whether to refer the case to the Court of Appeal to “clarify the law”. She noted that “trial by jury is an important guardian of liberty and must not be undermined. However, the decision in the Colston statue case is causing confusion.” If the case were referred to the Court of Appeal in this way, the court would not be able to rule on whether the jury’s decision was correct, or to change the verdict, but only to decide whether there was an error in law in the directions that were given to the jury.

The acquittal by the jury in this case, and the reaction to it in some quarters, brings into focus the independence of the jury, and the power to acquit whenever it sees fit. This principle was established in Bushell’s Case ((1670) 124 E.R. 1006) in the 17th Century, in which jurors returned verdicts of not guilty, despite the judge urging them to find the defendants in the case guilty. The judge found the jurors to have returned an erroneous verdict and ordered the jurors to be fined and imprisoned (under the law as it stood at that time). One of the jurors appealed against that sentence, and the court ruled that jurors cannot be punished for their decisions. Jurors must be free to decide a case free from any pressure or intimidation.

There have been a number of cases which have attracted media attention because juries have acquitted in situations in which defendants have admitted causing damage. In 1985, Clive Ponting, a civil servant working for the British government, leaked documents about the Falklands war; he was acquitted in a jury trial despite the fact that he had breached the Official Secrets Act 1911 and the judge had directed the jury to convict him (R v Ponting [1985] Crim LR 318). In April 2021, a jury acquitted six Extinction Rebellion protesters of causing criminal damage to London headquarters of Shell despite the judge directing them that the protesters had no defence in law.

Criticisms invariably arise when cases of this sort are decided by juries with an acquittal verdict, and questions asked about whether trial by jury is an effective and just means of deciding criminal cases. In the case of the “Colston Four”, much of this criticism came from Conservative MPs, including Government ministers. How does this fit with the Government’s recent commitment, given in the context of its plan to reform the Human Rights Act, that it will “strengthen typically British rights like … trial by jury”? The jury is seen as a fundamental right in the English legal system, but one that will continue to be controversial.

5 comments

  1. Whilst agreeing with the points made, I am left wondering, what, then, is a “perverse verdict”, if it is not a verdict against the weight of the evidence, or in this case, contrary to the defendants’ admissions and the law of criminal damage? Why could the judge not have discharged the jury and ordered a new trial? Why was the trial held in Bristol in the first place?

  2. Whilst agreeing with the points made, I am left wondering what, then, is a “perverse verdict”, if it is not a “verdict of a jury that is either entirely against the weight of the evidence, or contrary to the judge’s direction on a question of law” (Oxford Dictiion nary of Law, Seventh edition)? Could the judge have discharged the jury and ordered a new trial?

  3. from a legal standpoint, i saw the need for the vent. jurors are indeed unpredictable. but on the other hand maam, jurors are human and will support mentally the abolishing of any remnants of the glorification of slavery…

  4. Good article…however as frightening as it is that one can be convicted or acquitted by a jury that realizes the power it holds with a yea or nay despite the correct guidance of a judge and knowing that they are independent and cannot be penalized, history has shown that juries as lay persons and people with emotions are often swayed by the passions of racism, sympathy, their consciences and other reasons. All said and done, juries are doing their civil duties and has been referred to as the ” bulwark of the liberties”…

  5. We know only too well the devastating impact a “Perverse Acquittal” has on victims and their families This is where the British criminal justice systems offer no answers. The very least we deserve is answers to just how the jury could of possibly come to their decision given the overwhelming evidence and testimony heard at our trial! “REGINA V KOBE EDWARD MURRAY” 25/01/2018 BIRMINGHAM CROWN COURT. Our campaign for “reasoned verdicts”, is not a new or left-field idea. In fact, they were a key recommendation made by one of the most senior legal officials in the country, in a 2001 review by Sir Robin Auld, then serving as Lord Justice of Appeal for England and Wales. The law must be amended. Please read our story: https://inews.co.uk/news/long-reads/court-jury-reasoned-verdicts-ryan-passey-criminal-cases-review-commission-994617

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