Entirely a matter for you, says Evan Whitton
MATT, the cartoonist in The Daily Telegraph (UK) is commenting here on a Home Office plan to allow jurors to hear of accuseds’ previous convictions. The minister, David Blunkett, said:
“These reforms put victims at the heart of the justice system. Trials should be a search for the truth and juries should be trusted with all the relevant evidence to help them to reach proper and fair decisions.”

Defence herpetoids will find those sentiments quaint and chilling, and the cartoon raises an ancillary issue: should untrained judges be the 13th juror? Three classic cases:

Justice Sir Nigel Cyprian Bridge summed up for a conviction in the 1974 Birmingham Six case, in which the wallopers got false confessions by torture. Mike Mansfield QC noted the judicial technique in Presumed Guilty: The British Legal System Exposed (Heinemann, 1993):

“In a careful, almost total demolition of every defence witness and the lauding, sometimes verging on deification, of prosecution witnesses, the jury was corralled into the guilty pen as though driven by a diligent sheep-dog.”

The Six got a deal of support in their long search for justice, but in 1988 Lord Alf Denning (1899-1999), former Master of the Rolls (head of the Appeal Court below the House of Lords), dropped the mask. He announced that it is better that six [innocent] men be hanged than that the judicial system be rubbished. He said:

“It is better that some innocent men remain in gaol than that the integrity of the English judicial system be impugned … Hanging ought to be retained for murder most foul. We shouldn’t have all these campaigns to get the Birmingham Six released if they’d been hanged. They’d have been forgotten, and the whole community would be satisfied.”

In 1991, the Appeal Court found that Lord (as he had since become) Bridge was disastrously wrong. They acquitted and freed the Six, after 16 years in prison.


In June 1979, Justice Sir Joseph Cantley summed-up for an acquittal in a case in which the Rt Hon Jeremy Thorpe (above), a barrister and former leader of the Liberal Party, was accused of being involved in a conspiracy to have Andrew Gino Newton murder Thorpe’s former lover, Norman Scott. The chief prosecution was Peter Bessell.

A few days later, Peter Cook, who said, “I could have been a judge, but I never had the Latin”, impersonated Justice Cantley at the Secret Policeman’s Ball for Amnesty International. He called the sketch Entirely a Matter for You, which is judgespeak for “entirely a matter for yours truly”.

“We have heard for example from a Mr Bex Bissell, a man who by his own admission is a liar, a humbug, a hypocrite, a vagabond, a loathsome spotted reptile and a self-confessed chicken-strangler. You may choose if you wish to believe the transparent tissue of odious lies which streamed on and on from his disgusting, reedy, slavering lips. That is entirely a matter for you … We have been forced to listen to the whinings of Mr Norman St John Scott, a scrounger, a parasite, a pervert, a worm, a self-confessed player of the pink oboe, a man, who by his own admission, chews pillows … The so-called hitman, Mr Olivia Newton John, is a piece of slimy refuse, unable to carry out the simplest murder plot … You are now to retire, as indeed should I, carefully to consider your verdict of Not Guilty.”

The jurors had taken Sir Joseph’s advice; he did not take Cook’s.


In a 1987 libel case, that lying rodent, Jeffrey Archer (b. 1940), falsely denied that he had resorted to a dwarfish prostitute, Monica Coghlan (above). Summing-up in favour of Archer, Justice Sir Bernard Caulfield seemed entranced by the icy charm of Mrs Mary Archer:

“Has she elegance? Has she fragrance? Would she have, without the strain of this trial, radiance? … Has she been able to enjoy rather than endure her husband Jeffrey? Is she right when she says to you — you may think with delicacy — ‘Jeffrey and I lead a full life’? … Is he in need of cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex in a seedy hotel?”

The jury gave Archer £500,000, and Caulfield added on costs of £700,000. In 2001, Lord (he had been ennobled by Prime Minister John Major in 1992) Archer got four years for perjury at the trial, and he eventually had to pay back £1.5 million.

An aspect of our brilliant adversary system which lorn order politicians might usefully contemplate is that judges and lawyers are said to understand that 99 per cent of accused are guilty, but when sitting alone judges hide heaps of damning evidence from themselves, and then find 75 per cent not guilty. Or so it seems from an alarming statistic in The Australian of August 27, 1994. Ms Janet Fife-Yeomans reported:

“Figures from the NSW District Court show that the jury convicted in half the cases while the judge, when hearing a case alone, convicted in only a quarter.”

That is really nice for criminals and their herps, less so for victims and long-suffering citizens who pay judges’ wages.

And if judges are wrong twice as often as jurors, it follows that judges at jury trials would do well to keep their opinions to themselves, and that untrained appellate judges might think twice before second-guessing jurors.

The lorn order chaps might also think about this: European judges and jurors sit together and do not conceal relevant evidence from themselves, and they convict 90 per cent of the 99 per cent who are guilty. That is, they give some 10 per cent the benefit of the doubt, which seems about right.

November 5, 2004