Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Do Jurors Have a Moral Obligation to Avoid Deadlock?

This essay was the runner up in the undergraduate category of the 5th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford student Angelo Ryu

1. Introduction

Many legal systems have juries decide cases of an especially grave nature. Because a jury consists of a group of individual jurors, they need a decision-making procedure before it may act. One such procedure is a voting rule: most require either unanimity or supermajority to deliver a verdict. An inability to do so results in a mistrial.

Mistrials are often treated as a sort of failure which ought to be avoided. To that end judges sometimes intervene if deadlock seems likely. In England there is the Watson direction, which refers to a collective obligation to return a verdict. The United States has the Allen charge, which informs jurors of a duty to agree upon a verdict, if possible.

These instructions are often criticised as an impermissible judicial intervention infringing on jury autonomy. At best they are treated as a sort of necessary evil, which must only be used in extraordinary cases. But I argue there is nothing objectionable about such instructions because they simply track the obligations already held by jurors. They serve an important function in informing jurors of their moral position. There may indeed be an imperative for legal systems without such recourse to implement one, as jurors may not always know the duties incumbent upon them in the exercise of their authority. But all this presumes that jurors face an obligation which mirrors these jury instructions. The aim of this essay is to defend that claim. Continue reading


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