Vicky Pryce and the Usefulness of the Not Proven Verdict

22 February 2013

Like John Rentoul, I think much of the scoffing and chortling at the expense of the poor jury asked to consider Vicky Pryce’s guilt (or innocence!) is misplaced. This was an unusual case. The questions* they asked – which have been much mocked – seem entirely reasonable to me. More than that, they’re quite intelligent. “Reasonable doubt” for instance is not necessarily an obvious thing to measure or define.

As for their conduct demonstrating that the Great British public is incapable of jury service, well, phooey to that. In any case, in both the legal systems that apply on these islands, the vast majority of trials do not involve juries at all. We do not actually believe juries are necessarily necessary for criminal proceedings.


If any conclusion may – tentatively – be drawn from this affair then I suggest it is that the English legal system could profit from an extra verdict. I have no idea whether the jury could have reached a verdict of Not Proven, of course.

The third verdict is sometimes criticised in Scotland but I think it has its uses.

*For the record, these were the questions asked:

You have defined the defence of marital coercion at page 5 and also explained what does not fall within the definition by way of examples.
Please expand upon the definition (specifically “will was overborne”), provide examples of what may fall within the defence, and does this defence require violence or physical threats.
In the scenario where the defendant may be guilty but there is not enough evidence provided by the prosecution at the material time of when she signed the NIP (between 3 and 7 May 2003) to feel sure beyond reasonable doubt what should the verdict be = not guilty or unable/unsafe to provide a verdict?
If there is debatable evidence supporting the prosecution’s case, can inferences be drawn to arrive at a verdict? If so, inferences/speculation on the full evidence or only where you have directed us to do so (eg circumstantial evidence, lies, failure by VP to mention facts to the police).
Can you define what is reasonable doubt?
Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it, either from the prosecution or defence?
Can we infer anything from the fact that the defence didn’t bring witnesses from the time of the offence, such as au pair, neighbours?
Does the defendant have an obligation to present a defence?
Can we speculate about the events at the time VP signed the form or what was in her mind at that time?
Your Honour, the jury is considering the facts provided but have continued to ask the questions raised by the police. Given the case has come to court without answers to the police’s questions, please advise on which facts in the bundle the jury shall consider to determine a not guilty or guilty verdict.
Would religious conviction be a good enough reason for a wife feeling that she had no choice ie she promised to obey her husband in her wedding vows and he had ordered her to do something and she felt she had to obey?


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  • FF42

    I suspect juries sometimes find for guilty on the narrow point of the judge’s direction, but they are aware of mitigating circumstances that would make any guilty sentence too harsh . Perhaps they could see themselves in the position of the defendant. So they look for creative ways to find the defendant not guilty.

    The main difference in Scotland, I believe, is that a gulity verdict is automatic when eight out of the fifteen original jurors find for guilty. At least eight is guilty; less than eight is innocent. So you don’t get mistrials when insufficient jurors agree.

  • Laspeyres

    Well said. Many seemed to have jumped at the opportunity to sneering at the jury. I think some attention should be given to the obtuse langage used by the judge. Read the text below, with multiple clauses and parentheses and see how easily you understand this:

    “A wife’s will would not have been overborne (in the sense that I have just described) if, for example, she was persuaded by force of argument to choose (albeit reluctantly) to commit the offence rather than to take another course, or if she was persuaded (albeit reluctantly) to commit the offence out of love for, or loyalty to, her husband
    or family, or to avoid inconvenience (whether to herself or others). Her will
    must have been overborne in the sense that she was impelled to commit the
    offence because she truly believed that she had no real choice but to do so.

    It is not, however, for the defendant to prove that Mr Huhne coerced her – rather it is for the prosecution to prove that he did not do so. The Prosecution may do that (as they seek to in this case) either by making you feel sure that Mr Huhne was not present when Ms Pryce committed the offence, or by making you feel sure that her will was not overborne (i.e. that she was not impelled to commit the offence because she
    truly believed that she had no real choice but to do so)”.

    • salieri

      Of course, precise language is such a bore inni’ bro? Try reading it out loud, with the obvious inflections, pauses and emphases, and it’s actually quite hard to improve upon. Obtuse it is not.
      Flippancy aside, you do raise a very important point: should judges now try to address morons in, shall we say, basic demotic speech – or rather, what that speech is condescendingly assumed to be? Like, for example, the Church and the BBC? Should they leave out all those inconvenient qualifications, conditions and distinctions which baffle those who use none in their own communications? Should they try lots of very short sentences for those who have never come across anything longer than a ‘Sun’ editorial? Or must a minimum standard of comprehension – for better or worse – be taken for granted when a judge has to explain reasoned legal principles to the unreasoning?
      It’s an old question. Let’s not forget two things: firstly, before he was a judge Mr. Justice Sweeney spent most of his adult life addressing non-lawyers, with the whole spectrum of intelligence that entails. He knows what ordinary people understand and don’t understand: and he knows what they can’t be allowed to misunderstand. A courtroom is not a pub, any more than it’s a philosophical seminar. Secondly, whenever language is dumbed down for the presumed benefit of stupid people, it is always both patronising and hopelessly inaccurate. The summing-up of law and evidence in the hope of a proper verdict (and avoidance of an appeal) does impose minimum standards of clarity, without which juries would be even more hopelessly lost than they already appear to be.
      By all means debate whether juries, for all their faults, are indispensable in our justice system. As I say, it’s an age-old question. But for god’s sake don’t try to eliminate the problem by requiring judges to use noddy-speak.

  • Daniel Maris

    This certainly raises the question of whether you can continue with the jury system when you have a policy of making citizens of millions of people who have only a very poor understanding of English and whose values may be opposed to our system of criminal justice.

    I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater but I would make potential jurors sit a combined computerised “English comprehension” and “role of juries” test. I also think it’s absurd we allow people who have been convicted of crimes to sit as jurors.

  • vvputout

    ‘Not proven’ is a stupid verdict. If the prosecution can’t prove its case, the accused is entitled to an acquittal pure and simple.

    Also, at least a substantial minority of the jurors were morons. Jury trial should be abolished and replaced with trial by judge plus two lay magistrates.

  • wcm_eu

    This case began with a speed camera. The story of these people’s(pathetic-cum-boring) lives does not merit the public’s time or expense. Huhne’s action was stupid, but the subjecdt of sitcoms (Jack Dee’s Lead Balloon). Vicky Pryce’s belated report to the police is simply cheap, vindictive and b§tc§y.

    Why should a judge not been able to put this matter in order when it first turned up on a docket?

    • Ron Todd

      I do not expect the people that make our laws and get good money and better expenses for their trouble to be perfect. The speeding offence was a relatively minor matter. If he had taken the points and got himself a driver for a while it would all have been forgotten a long time ago. He though put the blame on his wife and lied about it for the next ten years. He took the attitude that he could use his wealth and power to get round the laws he found inconvenient the same laws he would expect those of us who are merely voters to obey. He deserves all he gets though I suspect that will not be much, and it has to be tested wither or not his then wife was complicit and he trial is meaningless if those that are to sit in judgement do not know enough of either our language or culture to understand even the basics of a jury trial.

      • wcm_eu

        >>”He though put the blame on his wife and lied about it for the next ten years. ”

        The pointisthat she was complicit and has not satisfied a jury that she was bullied. She waited ten years to play on the matter for her own then-mean nterests, not out of concern for principles.

        • Ron Todd

          I should have been clearer; was she complicit willingly or was there a degree of coersion has to be tested. She has not satisfied a compenent jury that she was bullied because there was not a competent jury.

          • wcm_eu

            As a taxpayer, you should be concerned about wasted time on such questions in this case. She’s a big girl and your child may someday be taking exams under her. If so, you might be a bit concerned about where she is on the Global economy. I’m not impressed.

  • Albro

    When i studied Criminal Law, the man on the Clapham Omnibus, was constantly reeled out.Would he consider it reasonable. Yes or No. At nineteen i could totally understand what was meant and no further explanation was necessary. I do not come from Clapham, by the way.

    • sam

      mind you, it’s questionable how far the man on the clapham omnibus (now) still represents The Man On The Clapham Omnibus, if you see what I mean.

  • Tom M

    I might have guessed, an article by Alex Massie. Only he could try to explain how a juror asking what “reasonable” means was an intelligent question.

    The only conclusion that any reasonable person could arrive at is that this jury was comprised in no small part by people who did not understand the English culture and/or language.

  • Foeu

    “Not Proven” is the same as not guilty. The Prosecution has to prove beyond reasonable doubt. If the Jury think that there was reasonable doubt then the case is not proven.

    • andagain

      “Not Proven” allows you to distinguish between “We are not sure she is guilty” and “We are sure she is innocent”.

      • Foeu

        If the jury are not sure then there is reasonable doubt.

        • andagain

          If one man accused of rape was certainly innocent, and another was not certainly guilty, would you really treat them both the same in every way?

          • Foeu

            Yes the prosecution have to prove beyond reasonable doubt.
            Any doubt and they must acquit .

            • andagain

              And how would you treat them AFTER acquital?

  • Eddie

    The law is a you-know-what.
    This malicious, evil old harriden was bent on revenge.
    She then got her sneaky lawyers to use a legal defence with a sexist law that should immediately be erased from the statute book. Why? Because only women can use it – pleading, in typical sobbing pity-party way ‘he made me do it boo hoo hoo’. Odd really, that a woman at the top of an international financial career can be wo weak and vulnerable. Bless.
    She should be sent to Holloway with a doublly long sentence, just for attempting to play the poor wickle woman who is so weak and vulnerable that a nasty wasty man came along and made her commit a crime. Pah!
    Imagine having that as a mother. Poor kids.

    • fantasy_island

      Indeed, or imagine having that as a wife!

    • greggf

      VP – reminds me of Sara Keays and her fury after being scorned by her lover Cecil Parkinson.

  • CraigStrachan

    This case should have been quietly dropped long since.

  • Rich Greenhill

    The Scottish Government is currently consulting on abolishing the “not proven” verdict, and Michael McMahon MSP has already proposed a bill to do just that.

    Agatha Christie put it pithily, “It’s not the guilty who matter. It’s the innocent.” Some truth in that, if not the whole truth, when it comes to achieving justice.

    So, three cheers for jurors not being afraid to ask questions. A loud boo for the press’s delight in ridiculing them for their candour. Doubtless the press would have treated a flawed verdict as handed down from god if it had been made with unquestioning disregard for the evidence.

    A more honest justice system would have to accept that, often in life, we cannot reliably distinguish truth from lies. Centuries from now, society will reconcile itself with that unpalatable fact. Until then, we must settle for the least worst way of classifing people as sheep or goats while we continue to deny the limitations of our own judgement.

    In that respect, the press and the courts have more in common than each would ever admit.

  • sarahsmith232

    only 2 were white, does anyone know if the rest were products of Labour’s rush to get as many 3rd worlders as citizens pre the 2010 election?
    one of the things that people are saying in defence of the jury system is that being judged by ‘your peers’ and ‘ordinary people just like you’ is important. but if it’s mainly immigrants taht that have dramatically different value sets then they’re not your peers or ordinary people like you.
    the judge had to explain that her religious conviction shouldn’t be taken into account because it wasn’t part of the trail. i can well imagine the conversations taking place in teh jury room. there must have some pulling their out trying to get the otehrs to understand taht it’s really neither here nor there what her religion is or what her wedding vows were on her wedding day, it isn’t a defence in this case. but this obviously was not something they could grasp.
    can you imagine a rape trail where the girl has drunk alcohol? this has really highlighted a problem

    • Daniel Maris

      It has – a cultural problem, not a skin colour one of course. But Massie is incredibly naive as this article shows. Rarified debates on Not Proven are supremely irrelevant when you cannot even be sure the jurors can follow basic English sentence structure. For the avoidance of doubt: there is no test of English comprehension for jurors.

    • Eddie

      Only 2 were white? That has not been reported on any news I have listened to.
      But hey, if you take jury members from ethnic London, what do you expect? We’ve been handing out passports like greenshield stamps for years, so millions have ’em and millions do not speak English, have zeroclue about our values, culture, history and traditions – and legal process. Why?

      Well, perhaps it’s because our ethnophilica masters have spent all their time ‘celebrating’ the values, culture, history and traditions of anyone foreign – especially if they have a dark skin and a religion – who lives here, and whose culture (we are hectored) we must respect in the name of the great god of Diversity and Rispek.

      Such is the way of relativism – you see, multiculturalism means we cannot say our culture and values are better than those of a child-raping Pakistani goatherd with 4 wives. Hoorah! Zzzzz….

      Sadly, we need to get rid of juries in such cases – too thick and foreign these days to deal with any complex case.
      Or perhaps give a legal rep the right to request a new jury?

  • James Strong

    This is a very disappointing article, Mr. Massie.
    You offer nothing in support of the option of ‘Not Proven’ except ‘tentatively’, ‘suggest’ and ‘think’ .
    You say the verdict is ‘sometimes criticised’ but don’t say on what grounds, and you don’t address those crticisms.
    This article is sloppy and lazy and I’d be very surprised if any previously undecided reader now thinks there is merit in the ‘Not Proven’ verdict as a result of reading your article.
    Even though it’s Friday evening this is simply not good enough. Must do better.

  • Fordington Field

    Question 5? “More than that, they’re quite intelligent.” Oh come on!

  • Jim Fraser

    Good points, Alex.

    Also, the jury foreman was a probably just trying to get idiot jurors to understand how some of their ‘thinking’ was nonsense by the simple expedient of “OK, let’s ask the judge, maybe you’ll believe him!”

    • James Strong

      I suspect you are right.
      I suspect that a small number of the jury were such idiots but thaat most of the jurors were not.

    • witwoud

      Me too.

    • Hugh

      I probably agree with your second paragraph, but since it’s entirely different to what Massie’s arguing I’m a bit thrown by your first.

      • Jim Fraser

        I’m not sure I understand your point, Hugh, but here is what I meant.

        Alex made good points about the jury not being completely daft in asking about reasonable doubt, for example, because it is a little difficult to define exactly when you think about it.

        He’s also right that the recently much maligned ‘not proven’ verdict in Scotland might have proved a useful way out of things.

        My other point, that it might be a perfectly sensible jury foreman asking the seemingly daft questions because they were unable to get a rogue juror to apply common sense in the jury room (surely the best example being: “can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented
        in court and has no facts or evidence to support it, either from the
        prosecution or defence?”)

        Isn’t it possible this daft question was the product of a smart foreman just trying to do their best? If so, it’s another reason to agree with Mr. Massie that the jury shouldn’t be mocked so readily.

        Perhaps it’s just me that’s being daft 😉

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