The Jury’s Out

It is no surprise that a trial scheduled to start on Monday that is expected to last 20 days concerning a documentary about Michael Jackson’s older brother, the King of Pop’s former bodyguard and Channel 4 is hitting the headlines.

The story has gained a headline podium position due to its legal implications.

On Thursday, The Court of Appeal upheld a decision made by Mr Justice Tugendhat which could endanger the role of a jury in defamation cases.

A ruling made last month by Mr Justice Tugendhat that a libel action brought against Channel 4 by bodyguard, Matthew Fiddes need not be heard in front of a Jury was supported by The Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger, Lord Justice Maurice Kay and Lord Justice Sedley.
Mr Justice Tugendhat cited increasing costs as a key factor for his ruling. Costs are already estimated to be around £3m and the presence of a jury would no doubt prolong the trial. Representatives for Mr Fiddes had argued that the presence of jury may increase the length of the trial by only a couple of days.

The fact that the case would require the jury to view various sections of television footage and undertake detailed examination of documents was a further basis for the Judgement.

Ronald Thwaites QC, counsel for Mr Fiddes, said at the appeal: “At stake in this case is the future of trial by jury in defamation cases.

“If a judge can remove it, and be upheld, it is difficult to envisage any case where it can be successfully retained in the face of objection.

“As the law stands, every claimant who brings an action in libel or slander has a legitimate expectation it can be tried by jury.

“Only in the most exceptional cases can a judge remove a jury and order trial by judge alone.”

The main argument pursued was that the case in question was relatively straightforward and would likely turn on the evidence heard by the court. The decision on the reliability witnesses was one that should be within the hands of the general public – the man on the Clapham omnibus.

Lord Neuberger stood stern on the panel’s “clear conclusion”. The appeal was to be dismissed. The panel will explain the decision at a later date; the issue is one that requires a reasoned judgment.

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