The jury system revisited

My heartiest congratulations to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Christian Rocca, who was recently appointed Queen’s Counsel (and to Nigel Feetham who was similarly honoured). In preparation for an earlier column I wrote regarding aspects of the jury system in Gibraltar Mr Rocca very graciously gave me access to the dissertation he submitted as a law student at the University of Essex. It made very interesting reading.

One of his key proposals for reform was that jury service be made compulsory for women. Yes, surprising as it may seem to younger readers, as recently as 1993, when Mr Rocca completed his thesis, only men featured on the jury list; women had to volunteer if they wanted to be included. Indeed, as Mr Rocca noted: “up until 1960, women were not even recognised as potential jurors”. Thankfully this “anomaly” was eventually put right and both women and men are now called upon to serve.

However, another concern highlighted by Mr Rocca remains as valid today as when the jury system was first adopted in Gibraltar in 1830: in a small jurisdiction, where everyone knows everybody else, how impartial can a jury truly be?  Hardly at all, according to one time Governor Sir Archibald Hunter. Back in 1913, Mr Rocca reminds us, Sir Archibald had the temerity to suggest that the jury system be abolished, describing local juries as “partisan and notoriously unjust in favour of their own”. His words provoked quite a storm and he was “summoned back to the UK, never to return”.

Yet three-quarters of a century later the incumbent Attorney General, Ken Harris QC, said much the same thing. He reportedly told this newspaper in December 1991 that because of Gibraltar’s small size, “It is very difficult to be, and remain, completely impartial, whatever counsel or the trial judge may say…I am concerned that a number of verdicts in recent years have, in my opinion, been completely contrary to the evidence”.

Meanwhile, in his 1985 paper “Problems of jury trials in small jurisdictions”, Sir John Spry, an ex-President of the Gibraltar Court of Appeal, asserted that “In some islands, a local person charged with an offence against a foreigner is almost certain to be acquitted, while a foreigner accused of an offence against a local is equally likely to be convicted.”

Regrettably, statistics seem to back the view that Gibraltar juries are much likelier to convict foreigners than locals. An analysis by the now Registrar of the Supreme Court, Liam Yeats, of the verdicts in criminal cases between 1983 and 2013 shows that only a quarter (25%) of non-local defendants were acquitted, whereas three-fifths (60.5%) of locals were.

This issue alone seems to me a pretty good reason to reconsider whether we should persist with our jury system. But there’s the further argument that in Gibraltar we may be exposing jurors to unreasonable levels of stress. An indication of this came in the murder trial I referenced in last month’s column, in which the jury returning a guilty verdict asked for a counselling or support service to be established to help them, and future jury members.

If the jury system, because of jurors’ tendency to acquit locals and convict non-locals, is “failing to perform properly and impartially” as Christian Rocca asserts in his dissertation, and on top of that jury members’ health may be damaged by trauma, shouldn’t we at least have a rethink?

The Pools and the Post

What a great initiative: as its contribution to the commemorations of the 50thanniversary of the closure of the frontier, the National Archives has digitised its collection of the Gibraltar Evening Post and placed it online for everyone to enjoy. There are ten months’ worth, from the first edition on Monday 3 March 1969 through to the end of that tumultuous year.

As I browse, so many memories!

Childhood ones of course as I was barely 11 years old when Franco cruelly cut us off from the wider world, far too young to understand how momentous the events of 1969 were. Not just the frontier. We also got a new, modern Constitution and saw Sir Joshua Hassan toppled for the first and only time as Gibraltar’s political supremo. Although he obtained 1,500 votes more in that year’s general election than his Integration With Britain Party rival, Major ‘Bob’ Peliza, he was unable to form a government and had to settle – briefly – for the role of leader of the opposition.

Naturally I was only vaguely aware of all of this. Instead, what I do remember well from reading the Evening Post as a boy are the everyday things. They may be banned today but eye-catching, page-dominating cigarette advertisements were all the rage 50 years ago and must have tempted more than a few to sample the vile weed.

Long-gone eateries also did their best to seduce. Take this example from a newly-opened Lotus House in Main Street: “Her desire is that you should be satisfied for her only wish is to satiate your Chinese appetite”. Meanwhile Le Coq d’Or at 4 Cornwall’s Parade offered, “Fresh large prawns served to suit your individual taste”. And you could get a four-course meal at the Casino Royale Restaurant for 25 shillings: £1.25 in today’s money.

What brought back the most vivid memories of all, though, was the Post’s coverage of everything to do with the Football Pools. Younger readers may not even be familiar with the term but back in the 1960s people dreamt of getting rich by “doing the pools”. Sure, the government lottery already existed but the first prize was just £3,000: a tidy sum but hardly a fortune. On the other hand, for a modest stake the pools held out the tantalising prospect of winning hundreds of thousands of pounds.

There were numerous ways of playing, but if you wanted a chance of hitting the jackpot you had to correctly forecast eight score-draws from (usually) the English and Scottish professional league matches. (During the close-season summer months Australian league fixtures would be used). Pools agents would drop off a coupon at your home at the beginning of the week and collect it a few days later, together with your stake, after you’d filled it in with an ‘X’ for every match you selected. You then waited expectantly for Saturday evening to listen to the football results on the radio (no live matches on TV then), jotting them down on your coupon as you did so. Unlike nowadays, when games are stretched out sometimes from Friday to Monday, all matches were held on Saturdays with the same kick-off time.

Now in those pre-FM days, radio broadcasts were plagued with crackle resulting in many a score being missed by punters. And that’s where the Evening Post came in. The Saturday edition was eagerly awaited, as it would publish a pools coupon replica with all the results neatly filled in. My dad would methodically check his own completed results against the newspaper’s hoping, I expect, that those he hadn’t heard properly had ended in a score draw, edging him closer to that coveted “first dividend”. Needless to say it never happened.

The Post’s pools-related coverage wasn’t limited to Saturdays either. Midweek it published the next match-day fixtures, suggesting its own tips, and announced the dividend forecast from the previous Saturday’s results. Ads by the major pools companies – Littlewoods and Vernons, Zetters and Copes – added to the mystique, with intricate explanations of their “plans” and “perms”. It was all fascinating stuff for a young adolescent getting his first glimpses of the adult world, and I have the Gibraltar Evening Post to thank for it.