Trial collapse raises questions over jury system

A Circuit Court trial collapsed yesterday after it emerged a jury member had researched a witness online

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The collapse of a Circuit Court trial yesterday has sparked debate over the future of Ireland’s jury system.

The retrial of a child-minder charged with causing serious harm to a ten-month-old baby fell apart after it emerged the jury foreman had googled background information on one of the witnesses.

It was the second time that Sandra Higgins, 36, from The Beeches, Drumgola Wood in Cavan town had plead not guilty to the charges – and the Director of Public Prosecutions will now consider whether to seek a third trial.

Growing problem

On The Pat Kenny Show this morning, barrister Paul Anthony McDermott said the situation will highlight what has been a growing problem for the legal system as technology advances.

“I think there is going to be a natural curiosity among jurors," he said. "They are sitting in a trial listening to hour after hour of evidence - sometimes the evidence can be quite dull so you can understand human curiosity."

"We all know people who literally cannot sit still for ten minutes without checking their phone so all of these things are playing in and giving rise to the realisation that jurors probably are using Google.” 

He said the evidence that is permitted in a court room is subject to examination and cross-examination - with the judge capable of stepping in with guidance where required - something that gets lost if jurors are looking up their own information online. 

He said the authorities will eventually need to consider whether it is possible to adequately police the information jurors are accessing online – and whether juries should simply be told about previous convictions ahead of time.

“Maybe we are better off saying to the jurors, ‘we will tell you that this person has a previous record, they have been in trouble before but that is irrelevant,’” he said. “You have taken an oath and you have to be open to the possibility that somebody could commit ten burglaries but hasn’t done this one.”

He warned that the situation raises serious questions as to whether there have been other cases that have slipped through the cracks.

Contempt of Court

There have been a number of cases in England where jurors have been handed heavy sentences for contempt of court after looking up information online.

In 2012, former university lecturer Theodora Dallas was handed a six month jail sentence for carrying out online research on a defendant accused of grievous bodily harm.

In a separate case 40-year-old Joanne Fraill was given an eight month sentence after becoming the first person in Britain to receive a contempt of court conviction over using the internet.

Mr McDermott said that theoretically an Irish judge could decide to go the same way – as jurors take an oath not to research the case and collapsed trials can cost the state, “hundreds of thousands of Euros.”

Respect for the jury system

He said that “even hardened criminals” tend to accept the verdict of a jury – adding that the country could lose something important if the system were to be abolished entirely.

“Whatever people might say about problems with the gardaí or other problems in the country - I think most people understand a verdict by a jury is usually fair; is usually right,” he said.

He questioned whether the same level of trust would exist if every criminal trial was decided by a judge.

“Maybe someday it will be abolished but I do think we would lose something by it,” he said. “It is a chance for members of the public to participate in their country.”

“It is not something that is easy to do, it may be inconvenient but it is the one opportunity you get as a citizen to take the view that, ‘I am part of Ireland.’”

You can listen back to the full conversation on The Pat Kenny Show here: