Or a jury member, perhaps.
As we reflect on the outcome of the 2-years-in-the-making Hillsborough inquest, I can’t help but notice that a lot of people have a lot of views about what happened that fateful day 26 years ago, and whether the jury got it right, or partly right, or not at all right.
It’s a common thing – all the more common in this age of insta-comment thanks to Social Media in all its many flavours. Everyone’s a critic, they used to say.
But as a lawyer I’ve often been asked my opinion on the latest trial outcome. “Did you see that Mr X got off? Disgusting, isn’t it?”
As an aside I can’t help but mention that the questions always seem to be phrased this way: did the defendant “get off”? No, he didn’t “get off”. He was acquitted. He was innocent till proven guilty, and he wasn’t proven guilty, so how could he “get off” anything?
I’ll get back to Hillsborough in a moment.
My answer is, nearly always, “I don’t know enough about it to form a view. But the jury probably did, and probably got it right.”
Court proceedings are nothing like as interesting as they are portrayed in fiction. A moment’s brilliant cross-examination might take your breath away – once, for a minute, in a 3 day hearing – but it’s the exception, not the rule.
The rule is prosaic. The advocates take the jury through the evidence, one step at a time. Many witnesses recount uncontroversial matters. Many items of evidence – photos, maps, diagrams, items from the scene and so on – will be looked at and looked at again. Experts will give evidence, in detail, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. Reports running into 100s of pages will be reviewed, meticulously, by judge and jury. Tough questions will be asked. Opinions change.
And sometimes the outcome is the wrong one. Every now and then there’s a miscarriage of justice. That’s why I’m so sure that we need to keep an excellent, expert and legally-aided criminal defence system going in this country – because without it, you can face the full weight of “the system” with no-one to help; and sometimes you’ll be locked up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But that isn’t common. The usual outcome, in my experience of nearly 30 years in practice, is that the jury gets it right.
The Hillsborough jury took 2 years to get it right. They lived and breathed that dreadful day, for 2 years. Lawyers represented just about everyone with a proper interest. All the questions seem to have been asked, all the evidence considered.
Is it likely that the odd commenter on Social Media is right, and that this jury got it wrong?
I don’t think so. From what I’ve seen and read in the press – and you can’t rely on it too far, I know – the conclusions of the jury are not only likely right – but fairly unsurprising.
Social Media gives everyone the chance to be a lawyer. But I think we should all think twice before we take a view contrary to the people who have really looked into a case.
Paul Scholey – Senior Partner