MARK TWAIN regarded trial by jury as “the most ingenious and infallible agency for defeating justice that human wisdom could contrive”. He would presumably approve of what is happening in Russia and Britain. At the end of 2008, Russia abolished jury trials for terrorism and treason. Britain, the supposed mother of trial by jury, is seeking to scrap them for serious fraud and to ban juries from some inquests. Yet China, South Korea and Japan are moving in the opposite direction, introducing or extending trial by jury in a bid to increase the impartiality and independence of their legal systems. Perhaps what a British law lord, the late Lord Devlin, called “the lamp that shows that freedom lives” burns brighter in Asia these days.
It is often thought that juries are a peculiarity of common-law countries such as America and Britain. Not so. Twelve-member citizens’ juries are widely used in Islamic-law countries, too. Even in civil-law ones in continental Europe lay jurors sitting alongside professional judges help reach verdicts in serious criminal cases.