The reason why a jury trial made sense to the Colston defendants goes back to the age old tradition of juries being allowed to come to openly un-legal verdicts in the service of a higher justice. An op-ed in The Observer(09/01/22) celebrates the independence of UK juries and the principle that “there is no such thing as an incorrect jury acquittal: juries have an absolute right to acquit a defendant in a criminal trial regardless of the legal arguments advanced in a case.” The article mentions some of the times protestors and climate change activists have been acquitted by juries who were in sympathy with their beliefs and the urgency of their cause. I remember the historian Alan Brooke telling me how 18th century courts would deliberately undervalue the value of stolen items, so that destitute and desperate thieves could avoid the gallows.
Checks and balances, I guess. The advantage of a legal system administered by people, rather than algorithms, is the potential for compassionate flexibility.
The rest of The Observer piece defends the verdict, and the jury’s right to make it, against attacks by various members of the government. The newspaper is concerned that Boris Johnson’s administration is attempting to strengthen its hold over the judiciary arm of government. The prime-minister likes to project a bumbling, genial character, but his government seems to be eroding our democratic institutions to consolidate its position and become more autocratic. This is deeply alarming and must be resisted.
Luckily, the personal tweetings of petulant Tories have no force in law or parliament. Yet. However, it is important not to fuel their campaigns. We must be scrupulously fair and just, if we are to condemn injustice in others. It may not be the best idea, then, to defend the historic right of juries to make arbitrary decisions, an age-old vulnerability of the system, if not an outright flaw. It makes us look hypocritical.