Government faces criticism over mental health jury ban


The government has refused to explain its failure to fulfil a long-standing promise to reconsider the ban on people with mental health conditions serving on juries.

Under the Juries Act, anyone receiving treatment for a mental health condition from a medical practitioner cannot sit on a jury.

The government promised in 2004 to launch a consultation on removing the ban, but has so far failed to act.

Since the pledge, an estimated 50,000 people have been barred from jury service.

The mental health charity Rethink this week launched a campaign to pressure the government to keep its promise. It wants the blanket ban replaced by a simple test of a person’s capacity.

It comes only weeks after the government launched its New Horizons mental health strategy, with a major focus on tackling the stigma around mental illness, including plans for a ministerial summit meeting on the issue.

Paul Jenkins, Rethink’s chief executive, said: “People with mental health problems should be judged on their capacity, not according to their diagnostic label.”

In a letter to justice secretary Jack Straw, Jenkins says the law “blatantly discriminates against people affected by mental illness”.

He says the quality of justice would be improved if juries included people with direct experience of mental illness, as mental health awareness in the court system is often poor.

Writer and broadcaster Stephen Fry, who has bipolar disorder, backed the campaign, and said such exclusion was “unfair and discriminatory, and eliminates a whole tranche of law-abiding, competent individuals who should be entitled to play their part in the justice system”.

The Criminal Bar Association also backed the campaign. Paul Mendelle, chair of the association, said juries should “represent a cross-section of society” and that a blanket ban “seems inappropriate”.

But a Ministry of Justice spokesman said that “any change would need to strengthen our jury system” and “there can be no question of changing the law to allow people to serve as jurors where their ability to do so is in doubt”.

He said about two per cent of people are excluded from jury service because they are receiving mental health treatment, and the government continued to “keep the position under review”.

But he declined to explain why there should not be a capacity test rather than a ban, or how the government justified a ban in the wake of its New Horizons strategy.

13 January 2010


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