Professors at UCD Sutherland School of Law published a ground-breaking report last month assessing the interactions between judges and jurors in Ireland. The study, titled ‘Judges and Juries in Ireland: An Empirical Study’, is the realisation of a project which began in 2017 by Dr Mark Coen and Dr Niamh Howlin, along with their research assistants, Dr Colette Barry and Mr John Lynch.
The study is based on the findings of interviews with 22 judges and 11 barristers working within the Irish criminal justice system. The focus was predominantly on judges’ personal experiences presiding over jury trials; questions posed included what kind of rapport they have with jurors, what guidance and warnings they give to juries, and their views on the treatment of jurors.
The aim of the study is to remedy the lack of empirical research on jury trials in this jurisdiction, whilst informing discussions and perhaps leading to law reform in the area. In an interview with Dr Coen and Dr Howlin, they noted that the laws on jury secrecy make empirical research challenging, as jurors are prohibited from discussing deliberations.
Another aim of the study is to identify possible divergences in practice regarding warnings or guidance given by judges. This is significant for issues such as warning jurors not to use the internet – a relatively new obstacle to fair trials on indictment. The research illustrates variations on the emphasis placed by judges on this warning, showing a possible need for reform.
The study was officially launched in the Criminal Courts of Justice in March by Chief Justice Frank Clarke. He spoke emphatically of the current financial and social burdens placed on jurors in modern Ireland, given the length of trials. He also noted the need for improved judicial training, reminiscing on his first week at the bench when he felt underqualified to carry out the duties expected of him.
An unusual feature of the study is the use of empirical research. This was a condition of the Fitzpatrick Family Foundation who kindly funded the study. The Foundation approached the Law School in UCD with a funding proposal in 2017 and the project began from there. Drs Coen and Howlin began by deciding on the topic of the study and then began interviewing for research assistants to aid with this study as they knew the research would be labour-intensive.
The study consists of interviews with serving judges of superior and district courts and practitioners. Having decided on the lines of questioning they would pursue based on their research objectives, a member of the research team would then meet with and interview the judge or practitioner. Dr Coen noted that the judges were very generous with their time given their busy schedules, and that the interviews lasted around 90 minutes each. These were audio recorded at the time and subsequently a transcript was typed up of the interview. From there began the arduous process of manually plucking out the key themes of the interviews and collating them into observations for the Report. The project began in 2017 and concluded this year.
In the course of the study, Drs Coen and Howlin were most surprised by the judges’ sympathetic attitudes towards jurors. They said that while this was not a theme, they had set out to investigate, there was an undeniable sentiment on the part of judges regarding concern for jurors being inconvenienced by jury service. The judges interviewed noted that jurors were not provided with any travel expenses meaning that many lose money whilst travelling to and from court every day. Another key finding was that judges wished to appear approachable and non-intimidating to jurors, as they were conscious that jury service is often the only direct contact lay people have with the criminal justice system.
With regard to future research prospects, Drs Coen and Howlin said that they would like to expand on this report and ultimately would like to be able to interview jurors in order to produce further research. At present it is unclear whether the interviewing of jurors is legally permissible as it may constitute contempt of court, but Dr Coen noted that only 1 judge in the study felt it would not be legal to do so for academic research purposes. For now, those impacted by and involved in the Irish criminal justice system can hugely benefit from this new research on jury trials provided by UCD Sutherland School of Law.
Blathnaid Corless & Amy Doolan – Law Writers