Let’s keep juries british!!

In another example of the press picking up  a non-story to create another needless and self-destructive slur about criminal justice policy and by implication Kenneth Clarke and in the even more disgraceful commentaries from our ‘informed’ public we can see how difficult genuine reform on criminal jutsice will ever be. The article in question ‘Can’t read or write English? You could still serve on a jury under new rules designed to help’ (http://bit.ly/iaj0YL accessed on 26.4.2011) purports to be alarmed at the apparent disregard of the need to be able to  read and write english whilst retaining the right to serve on the jury. In its manufactured alarm we are told that this could mean that juries are composed of people who cannot understand english ( of course not necessarilly the same as being able to read and write it) and who thus cannot administer justice as we supposedly know it. This is a somewhat alarming non-sequitor about the changes which are actually more modestly being proposed. Put simply they are about individuals ensuring that they understand their duty to be considered for jury service by making the information available to them in more languages. Surely a reasonable and uncontroversial action in a mutlicultural society. But the article goes on to cite the following:

‘Criminologists and MPs said yesterday that they were worried about  inclusion of those with poor English on juries’

This actually turns out as we read the article to be just one MP and a member of the Think tank Civitas who presumably is the criminologist that they are referring to. The article explains the HM Courts and Tribunal Service’s position on this but chooses by its tone and its inlcusion of key quotes to ignore the basic message it is seeking to convey – that in any multicultural society we have to ensure the means by which its members can communicate effectively.  That must be a basic duty. The article though through its coomentray from our informed MP and academic that we should be under no illusion that in England everyone must read, write and speak  english excellently as the MP explains:

Douglas Carswell, Tory MP for Clacton, said: ‘The jury system is founded on the idea that we are all tried by our peers. If your peers cannot speak English,  or read or write it properly, how can you have confidence you will get  justice?’

He added: ‘Ministers in successive governments have stated that they are  going to curb the effects of multiculturalism, but the bureaucrats keep on putting forms and documents into dozens of languages.’

That this is not challenged is a disgrace that it is seemingly endorsed is surely an outrage. So our MP thinks we should ‘curb’ multiculturalism as if it is some slur to have such an aspiration. I have visited many diverse countries where bilingualism is the norm – Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Wales, Sweden to name just a few. No one thinks twice about key symbols being displayed in more than one language and no fingers are pointed at those whose first language is not the local language. Indeed where countries choose to use english as the language of education it is rarely the first language but students nevertheless are encouraged to communicate.

We seem to have a belief held solely in England that somehow it is almost a criminal offence not to be fluent in the only langauge that seems to matter – English. Indeed any lack of fluency is taken as a sign that you are not truly english! One comment published on the Mail Online website adopted this position without any seeming irony: ‘Instead of sending out letters in different languages, send the letter in the  language of the country-English. Then, in as many languages as a bureaucrat can think of, add the instruction “this is an official document. You are required to  reply to it. Failure to do so will result in a fine. It is your responsibility  to have this document translated.” Cheaper, and encourages people who live here  to learn the language which is good for them and everyone around them.

Clearly there is no suggestion that juries should contain individuals who cannot for any reason understand the proceedings. Yet this simple feature is barely touched upon. HM Courts and Tribunal Service makes it clear that the ability to understand court hearings is paramount and there are numerous ways that the court can disqualify a juror if they are not able to serve appropriately. There is no suggestion either that this is directed at immigrants which slipped into the article title.  Indeed I can imagine someone with dyslexia being asked to be relieved from a complex fraud case if they were unable to be helped with the reading of complex documents. We have simply not grown up in this country and still do not understand the true import of multiculturalism. This article demonstrates that somehow anyone living in the UK who does not have full command of the english language, no matter what the reason,  is somehow a second class citizen and by implication cannot understand the complexities of the law because they are deficient in the reading and writing of english. Would that not disqualify an awful lot of poorly educated english people too? Should we have an english examination for jurors to sit before they can take up their place.

The comments on the web site are sadly very illuminating – ‘ This must confirm Ken Clarke’s insanity and unsuitability to be Minister of Justice’ (for a policy that has been in place 2 years!!  ‘Next we will be allowing convicts to serve on a jury. Simply unbelievable.’ -(actually why not given rehabilitation, maybe ex-offenders might understand the system better than some of these readers). I could give more examples. It’s interesting to note that after each comment there is a button to REPORT ABUSE and I am tempted to class all such remarks in a similar way.

This is just another reminder that in trying to have a considered debate about criminal justice policy we are faced with the populist press who shape a version of an issue in such a way as to provoke this sort of response. How can we hope to find a way of producing the sort of multicultural criminal justice system we have a duty to promote, which is informed by reasonable thinking, rather than  listening to such hysterical and ill-informed comments from the spin the article had really intended  by the way it was constructed. The criminologist,  Dr David Green, of the Civitas think-tank, said: ‘If you can’t even read the letter summoning you for jury service, you are not fit to be a juror.’ I am not sure that criminologists I know and I know rather a lot of them would come to this delightfully simple yet deeply misguided conclusion. What we know about our society is that there are many people whose voice is excluded from debates through a huge range of factors including accessibility, financial means, literacy (for first language english people), second language speakers,poverty, health, exclusion etc etc and that there may be a whole host of reasons why we might want to exclude certain jurors. Doing so simply because the individual cannot read and write english per se is simply a piece of indirect and direct discrimination. And when I last looked that was against the law though perhaps my reading of it is distorted by my belief in human rights and responsibilities.

*** Please note that the comments quoted were taken from the article on the website as indicated above and accessed on 26.4.2011.

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