How long can a jury take to return a verdict? And how do they reach a verdict?

It’s a nervous moment for everyone, when a jury is sent to consider there verdict.  Those waiting patiently will be asking themselves how long will the jury take and what is likely to happen?

How long can a jury take to deliberate?

All juries are told before they retire there is no pressure of time to return their verdicts and they must take as much time as they need. When they first retire the Judge will ask them to reach unanimous verdicts, which means verdicts they all agree upon.

However, no jury can be left indefinitely. There may come a time when the jury is still in retirement and the Judge decides that if unanimous verdicts haven’t been reached the court will accept majority verdicts. This means verdicts on which the majority of the members have agreed.

A Judge will not allow a majority verdict to be taken unless the period of time the jury has been considering their verdicts is a reasonable one given the complexity and nature of the case and any majority direction cannot be given unless 2 hours and 10 minutes of deliberations have elapsed.

What is a majority verdict?

The minimum majority for a 12-person jury is 10. So if out of 12 jurors, 10 vote to acquit – and the judge has indicated he will accept a majority verdict – then a verdict can be returned. If only 9 out of the 12 jurors sought to acquit, no majority has been reached.

If the jury has been reduced from the original number of 12 jurors, the majority numbers will then be 10 to 1 (in an 11 person jury) or 9 to 1 (in a 10 person jury). A jury cannot consist of less than 9 jurors and therefore if for some reason the jury have lost 3 of their number and only 9 are left, they don’t have the option of a majority verdict and the court can only accept unanimous verdicts.

Only if guilty verdicts are delivered will the jury’s foreperson reveal the voting numbers and even if a majority direction has been given a jury can still deliver unanimous verdicts.

What if no verdict can be reached?

If a jury cannot reach a verdict upon which the majority of them agree then the jury is considered hung. Once the jury has taken their deliberations as far as they can without a verdict, then the judge will discharge them all from their duty. In those circumstances the defendant is not acquitted but similarly no finding of guilt has been made and the prosecution who bring the case will decide if they wish to retry the defendant. If they do, then a new trial will be scheduled with a new panel of jurors.

How does a jury reach a verdict?

For all the information a jury might have, the guidance on how to execute their duty is relatively simple:

  • They try the case on the evidence before them (i.e. the evidence produced in court).
  • The burden of proving the case is on the prosecution.
  • The defendant/defending solicitor doesn’t have to prove his or her innocence.
  • The prosecution have only proved their case if they are sure the defendant is guilty.
  • If they are not sure the defendant is guilty  – they must acquit him or her.

The burden to which the jury must be sure is a very high one and deliberately so. Even if a juror felt a defendant probably did it but couldn’t be sure, their duty would compel them to return a not guilty verdict.