Fish, Barrel, Shotgun

Yep, as you might guess from the title there’s more of Polly Pot’s patented pearls of wisdom to be shot at.

In today’s edition of ‘Polly’s Follies’ we find her turning her attention to the thorny question of removing juries from complex fraud trials – she’s in favour, I’m not, so we’re off to the usual flying start.

To begin with Polly starts by drawing spurious parallels between the government’s reputation on civil liberites – as per Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, – with their attempts to end an 800-year old right to trial by a jury of your peers in British courts:

Even things utterly unconnected are now viewed with suspicion. This government’s reputation on civil liberties is tainted by Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, colouring the debate on locking up suspects for 90 days without trial in Britain. Now any apparent curtailment of freedom seems suspect.

About the only thing Polly gets right here is reference to ‘things utterly unconnected’, The opposition to detaining suspects for 90 days without trial adn even the removal of juries from complex fraud cases has precisely fuck all to do with US human rights violations at Gitmo and in Iraq and everything to do with the current government’s own record on civil liberties – 700+ new criminal offences in eight and a half years, increasing use of summary justice, ASBOs, ID cards and a previous (abortive) attempt to restrict the right to trial by jury in cases brought initially before a magistrates court seem rather more relevant to the matter of this government’s record on civil liberties than anything Dubya’s lot might have been up to since 2001.

As exculpatory bullshit goes, this is the best I’ve seen yet – hey, don’t blame Blair, it’s all Dubya’s fault for giving him a bad press.

Fuck off.

But Polly’s on a roll and so we get:

Unlike the terror bill, there are no gut politics in this. There is no populist sentiment to appease, no Daily Mail clamour. On the contrary, the crime-hungry press seems uninterested in bringing these mega-thieves to justice. This is a technical issue to make sure big-time white-collar fraudsters no longer escape justice, as they do increasingly. However, Tories, Liberal Democrats and some Labour lawyers had no trouble in making this look like another grand Blairite assault on fundamental liberties. “Now Blair is banning juries!” the opposition cries, and to many it is all too believable – but wrong.

No ‘gut politics’?

Maybe not but there is the gut instinct that many of us feel that tells us that losing a right that’s been a fundamental element of the entire British justice system since Magna Carta is, like recents efforts to curb habeus corpus for terrorist suspects, a thoroughly bad idea.

But no, in Polly’s world its just no that big an issue because there’s ‘np populist sentiment to appease’ and the Daily Mail aren’t screaming about it – as if any of that actually fucking matters. I mean just what is Polly suggesting here, we forget about Parliamentary democracy, appoint a new ruling council made up of the editors of right-wing tabloid newspapers and legislate by opinion poll?

Like hell this is a ‘technical issue’, trial by jury is fundamental right of any citizen faced with charges that may be indictable in a higher court that that of a magistrate and its removal, even if only for a specific category of offence/case is still a fundamental alteration to the criminal justice system. Moreover it raises questions of precedent – if the government is permitted to end the right to a jury trial in complex fraud case, how long is going to be before we find them coming back to Parliament with another category of offence for which they believe there to be a case for ending the right to trial by jury? And another. And another. And before you know it, whoops the right to trial by jury has gone forever.

Still, as Polly contends that this categorically isn’t a ‘Blairite assault on fundamental liberties’ let’s see what evidence she has to support this particular assertion…

Well, what we get by way of evidence to support Polly’s claim runs to close on 800 words across seven paragraphs and can be readily summed up as follows:

1. Jury service is boring and gets in the way of everyday life.
2. Anyone prepared to serve on a jury in a long and complex case is obviously a complete saddo with nothing better to do.
3. Prosecutors have to simplify complex cases so the thickos on the jury can follow the action.
4. There aren’t that many of these cases a year anyway.
5. Fraudsters sometimes get off because juries are too thick to understand the case.
6. Lawyers make a shedload of money from cases that drag on for months.
7. It’ll all be alright because it’ll be the Lord Chief Justice who decides whether to dispense witha jury or not.
8. Most cases aren’t heard by a jury anyway but by a magistrate.

So of eight basic arguments for ending the right to jury trial in complex fraud cases one two – possible oversimplification of cases and complexity of evidence/argument – have anything at all to do with actual justice, everthing else is just the usual mix of contempt for either the system or the citizen.

The only issue here that actually matters is the question of justice and on that the Law Society, Bar Council and members of the Judicary have all come out against the removal of juries from complex fraud cases and, as Polly herself notes, “fraud sentences here are much lower in number than in the US”, which I’m sure she intends as an indictment of the British system but actually raise the question of whether we shouldn’t be looking more closely and what the US are doing differently – and far more successfully – than us, given that juries over there seem perfectly capable of tackling complex fraud cases of the kind that Polly considers beyond the capacity of us humble innumerate Brits.

Polly also points out, without any shred of irony, that:

The government proposes that any non-jury case would need agreement from the lord chief justice. It could be tried by one, two or three judges. Or by a judge sitting with two magistrates. Or by judges sitting with a panel of lay financial experts. The government is open to any other ideas if the opposition would only agree to something.

So this whole business of ending the right to jury trials in complex fraud cases is of such critical importance that the government haven’t even got a fucking clue what exactly they want to put in place of the jury in these cases.

Hell, why not just leaving things open to chance and the get the accused to spin the wheel of justice of see what luck turns up; “Oooh, that’s so unlucky, son. You were hoping for trial by single doddery old judge with borderline Alzheimer’s but the wheel just tipped over at the last second and you the lay financial experts instead. You must be gutted…”.

always one to finish with a flourish of banality, we come at last to Polly’s closing argument:

“f this key piece of non-ideological legislation fails to reach the statute books and swelling ranks of mega-fraudsters escape due sentence, it will be another sign of slippage in the authority every prime minister needs for everyday governing.”

Eh? ‘Swelling ranks of mega-fraudsters’? B-b-but weren’t you just saying there weren’t many of these cases a year not three or four paragraphs back?

And oh dear, Blair’s personal authority is at stake here, is it?

And I look like someone who gives a toss about that how, exactly?

I means its a tough choice.

PMs authority or civil liberties?…

PMs authority or civil liberties?…

PMs authority or civil liberties?…

Mmm… Fuck him, I’ll take jury trials any day.

UPDATE: Tony Hatfield makes broadly similar arguments if rather more politely than myself.

  • Katherine

    Okay, I get that you don’t like Polly Whatserface, but I think you might be being a tad harsh here. The debate about to juries and complex fraud trials has been going on for years, ad nauseum, with respected commentators on both sides. It’s not a simple one. I remember this being a topic that greatly interested my lecturers in criminal law at university and I’m sure it hasn’t stopped being talked about since them. It’s certainly not a New Labour proposal as such.

    The point about complexity in some fraud cases is not to call juries thick, just that some of the evidence needs a degree in economics and a long career in finance to understand it. This doesn’t of course explain why judges would be any better placed to understand the evidence, but the powers-that-be seem to be confident about their mega-brains.

    I think the point she was making about there being no populist sentiment to appease and no Daily Mail outcry was simply to say that this proposal is not about rabid tabloid headlines and focus groups and shouldn’t therefore be fought about as if it were a pitched battle against the forces of ignorance and demagoguery.

    Just some thoughts – I’m agnostic on this subject myself.

  • We are not talking about criminal trials here, so it seems perfectly reasonable to save taxpayers money and get rid of jury trials, especially as it seems juries are not very good at these complex cases anyway.

    You are wrong to have a go at Polly on this one.

  • Unity

    Neil,

    1. We certainly are talking about jury trials here – prosecutions brought by the SFO.

    2. It’s not that juries are not very good at these complex cases – they cope fine with prosecutions under Health and Safety law which are equally complex – its that prosecutions are often badly put together. Fraud cases come down to a question of juries sniffing out dishonesty, something they tend to be good at.

    3. Research using mock juries ahows that juries are generally harder on defendants where charges realate ot their professional activities or status then when charges are unrelated.

    You absolutely do want juries in complex fraud cases as they are actually more likely to convict on sound evidence than not.