An investigation by the Gazette has revealed a dearth of information about the type of people who serve on juries, as experts claim the government is not doing enough to monitor ‘seismic’ changes in the justice system.
The Ministry of Justice told the Gazette that it does not record the gender, ethnicity or average household income of serving jurors. While jurors’ dates of birth are stored on the central database, it is unable to deduce the average age of jurors from this information.
Responding to a freedom of information request, the MoJ said it has no legal or business requirement to hold these figures. However, it said it is continuing to explore how it can improve its data gathering.
The ministry’s own expert adviser has warned of an ‘endemic’ lack of information about the courts system, meaning the effect of Covid-19 on justice is still unknown. Following a three-month secondment to HMCTS, Dr Natalie Byrom, director of research and learning at the Legal Education Foundation, submitted a report in 2019 pushing for better collection and use of justice data.
‘They need to do more, and they need to do more faster,’ Byrom told the Gazette, saying she feared that her recommendations would be deprioritised in the face of other pressures. ‘I was surprised by the various recommendations that have been made around changing juries – for example, reducing the number of jurors – when actually they have not monitored what they are doing already.’
Byrom said there is an ‘absolute public interest’ in understanding who serves on juries, but that officials are wary about data collection because research into jury deliberations is barred by the Contempt of Court Act.
Major changes to how juries operate have been suggested in recent months. Perhaps most significantly, the government is making long-term plans to enable juries to hear trials remotely in England and Wales under the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Lord chancellor Robert Buckland discussed plans for remote juries on Radio 4’s ‘Law in Action’ broadcast. In a conversation with Gazette columnist Joshua Rozenberg, Buckland said Crown courts are increasingly concentrated in their areas of large population. ‘We may not necessarily be getting… the geographical diversity of juror that could enrich the experience and enrich the involvement of juries in our system.’
It is unclear how a lack of diversity among jurors can be identified, however, without more data collection and analysis.
Last month, the House of Lords constitution committee also identified a ‘paucity’ of justice data. ‘The impact of virtual hearings across the justice system remains fundamentally unclear in a number of respects, as insufficient data is being collected and analysed by HM Courts & Tribunals Service,’ the committee said in a comprehensive report on coronavirus and the courts.