Ministers harangue us about our lack of "engagement" with public duty. To hear them talk, we Brits are a bunch of non-voting, apathetic degenerates unworthy of their selfless and devoted public service. Oddly, however, jury service is one public duty ordinary Brits have faithfully fulfilled for centuries which they would rather we gave up.
Trial by a jury of one's peers (i.e. one's equals) is a right which has comforted generations of Englishmen. However corrupt the police, however aggressive the prosecutor, however prejudiced the judge, twelve ordinary people selected at random must be convinced of our guilt before we go to jail. No human institution is perfect (or perfectable), but it is the best guarantee of a fair trial that anyone has ever devised. Goodness knows how many generations of policemen and prosecutors have been deterred from wrongful harassment of those who annoy them by the thought that "a jury will never convict".
It has in its time been an instrument of reform. In 18th Century England there were more than 200 offences for which a man could be hanged. A Parliament of landowners was not much inclined to spare the necks of poachers, but when juries refused systematically to convict those who would die for trivial offences, the law had to be changed.
It was called "criminal equity" and there are those of us, facing the relentless progress towards a police state in Britain, who hoped to benefit from it one day, when we are forced into "criminality" by a Government which has created more than 1,000 new crimes and shows no sign of slowing its pace.
Every day, ordinary men and women, untrammeled by prejudices, free of the cynicism which naturally afflicts all who spend their lives in the criminal justice system, quietly do their best to do right. But our lords and masters in Whitehall don't think we are up to the job when the trial is "complicated". So it is that yet another right granted to us by Magna Carta begins a rapid slide to oblivion under "New Labour, New Tyranny".
Does anyone think that "complicated fraud trials" will be the end of this? Home Secretaries looking to prove their macho anti-crime credentials will soon be pointing out how complicated other trials can be. It will take one jury decision which does not suit the ruling Party, or one embarrassing headline in the Daily Mail, for the whole system to be brought down.
Jury duty is a bore. There's nothing glamorous about it. Workers tired from working Europe's longest hours to pay Europe's highest housing costs may be happy, at first, to be spared this civic chore. But many will live to regret its loss. Magna Carta guaranteed that: -
"No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned,...or in any other way destroyed...except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to none will we deny or delay, right or justice."
The message is clear. Tamper with jury trial - "...the lawful judgement of his peers..." - and we are none of us free men.
BBC NEWS | UK | Ministers 'to scrap fraud juries'