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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Trial by Jury

There has been a lot of jeremiah polemicising following the recent dismissal of a jury for failing to reach a conclusion after asking what were reported as questions displaying a disastrous lack of understanding of the process, and certainly this episode did not cast a glorious light on this great British tradition.

However, it did make me think of those cases in which juries reached a conclusion perhaps rather different from the one they were expected to, and indeed was possibly considered desirable, in certain historic trials over issues of obscenity.

Possibly the verdict that Knowlton's birth control tract Fruits of Philosophy was indeed calculated to deprave public morals, but that Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant had had no corrupt motive in publishing it in 1877, was a somewhat spurious compromise. However, in a later birth control case, that of Henry Young, prosecuted under the Post Office Act in 1891 for sending out Malthusian pamphlets, a note on the file in The National Archives records official relief that the case was dealt with in the magistrates' court, rather than brought before a jury, because it was the kind of case where juries tended to sympathise with the defendant. It may be noted that the case against Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) was heard before a magistrate who refused to admit any of the line-up of potential defence witnesses.

However, in the 1942 case of the prosecution of Eustace Chesser's marriage manual Love without Fear and the even more famous 1960 prosecution of Penguin Books for publishing a cheap paperback edition of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, gambling on the likelihood of the jury being impressed by the sincerity of the defendant or bringing healthy demotic commonsense to bear undoubtedly paid off in not-guilty verdicts.

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