Published on December 14, 2012

So the public can’t be trusted with the justice system?

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

It’s now three weeks since I appeared in front of the Public Administration Select Committee as part of their inquiry into Public Engagement in Policy Making.  As is always the way, I continue to think of better ways I could have answered their questions.

One exchange continues to rankle. If you’ve got the energy then at roughly 10:17:45 on video, Paul Flynn MP makes a series of statements dressed up as questions which boil down to the view that you can’t trust the public. I blogged about this straight after the event, but I wanted to pick-up on something that’s only just occurred to me.


Paul Flynn cites popular support for capital punishment and lack of support for ‘gypsy encampments’ as examples of why the public shouldn’t be involved in decision-making. He said, “if you decide that you are going to the majority of opinion you may be in office but you are not in power, there is some role for parliament to take decisions above popular prejudice.

Aside from the somewhat distasteful spectacle of an elected politician appearing to despise the voters who elected him, this point of view is one we come across often. It is a significant challenge to change the culture of government so that it is one which is more open and engaging.

I made the point that asking the public a yes or no question is bound to generate black and white responses, with no shades of grey, let alone 50 (oh, yes, I’m up on popular culture).

I talked about the need for a very different style of leadership. We need to move away from the macho ‘follow me’ leadership which used to characterise politics, towards one where elected leaders identify strategic issues and hold open space for genuine public engagement and debate.

I highlighted IPPR’s work to engage the public on immigration issues, where knee jerk reactions might be expected, but much more thoughtful and nuanced views emerge as one example that public engagement doesn’t need to lead to mob rule.

But the more I thought about it the more I realised that we have a system of public engagement at the heart of the justice system already. It’s one that public engagement specialists seem to ignore, or forget. It’s one that has been at the heart of our system for at least 800 years. It is of course the jury system.

The more I reflect on this, the more remarkable it is that this isn’t one of our key examples of how the public can add value within our system of governance. In a much earlier post I called for a new infrastructure of public engagement, and here we have one, slap bang in one of the most contentious areas of public policy, crime, law and punishment. These are exactly the issues that Paul Flynn appears to reluctant to trust the public on, and yet we’ve been handing over the power to judge someone innocent or guilty for hundreds of years.

So, we can trust the public; we do trust the public. And we really must start doing so more often. But not in a simple way, providing simple questions with yes or no answers. The world is far too complicated for such questions to be relevant or meaningful. We need to start engaging the public in the full complexity of the world, opening up key public policy questions, not closing them down. The notion of an enlightened elite is outdated and outmoded. Bringing the public into the heart of the whole system is the only way our country can possibly navigate the complexity of the modern world.

Image credit: Southernfried

2 Responses to “So the public can’t be trusted with the justice system?”

  1. December 19, 2012 at 9:37 am

    With fairly fresh jury experience still in my mind, I think it’s certainly true that while they are often effective and credible ways of making decisions, they’re also pretty intense.

    I’m aware, but obviously not as experienced as your team in the practicalities, of citizens’ juries to deliberate on non-legal policy issues, and can see that working.

    But done properly, it strikes me that the jury model is a pretty radical approach to policymaking decisions, isn’t it? You’d have to:

    – compel people to take part, for as much time as necessary
    – accept, as a society, that we will be bound by the decisions of that group
    – select witnesses and evidence in a way which maintains credibility, even for the most controversial issues
    – boil policy issues down to some fairly black-and-white options (juries aren’t asked for their preferences after all, but to weigh evidence against established criteria to judge guilt or innocence)

    It would call into question the role of politicians and democracy, and fundamentally change the way expertise is used in policymaking, wouldn’t it?

    As I say, I’m no doubt making painfully elementary mistakes here, but while I agree that juries are evidence of trusting the public to make big decisions, that trust is given with some fairly onerous strings attached.

  2. Simon Burall
    December 19, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Steph, thanks for the commment, and taking the bait of my reposting the link on twitter.

    I didn’t mean to give the impression that I thought jury service would be a good thing for all policy decisions – perhaps not even any policy decisions. My post was provoked by one of the standard objections to involving the public in anything coming up during the PASC hearing, the public are reactionary, mob minded and can’t be trusted. I just wanted to point out that we do involve the public every working day in life changing decisions, and that on the whole they get it right. They’ll never always get it right, but then no leader will either. (that’s another whole thing of course about allowing bits of the system to make mistakes from time to time as long as they learn and change as a result)

    What I do think about policy decisions is that we need to make it easier and more attractive for the public to get involved in day-to-day decisions and conversations about policy. We must stop hiding data, and hiding debate behind jargon and walls.

    However, I suspect that we may also identify a class of big issues facing this country where we may want to impel (a sub-set of) citizens to engage with the big decisions that need to be made. At the moment we incentivise it through the payment of relatively small sums. That is fine, but there may be other ways to do it too, which will introduce other kinds of biases into the system of course.

    Long and short of this post was really me smarting over not having totally made my case against a particular MP with a particular agenda. And on that at least I suspect we can all agree that I was on a losing wicket.

Leave a Reply