Jurors who cannot read English are being invited to decide the outcome of criminal trials.
Inability to understand the written language is no bar to serving on a jury, officials said.
Even those who cannot easily understand the spoken word could be asked to sit in judgment on those accused of crime.
The opening of juries to people with limited English was confirmed by the new agency set up to run the court system, HM Courts and Tribunals Service.
The 200,000 people a year called for jury service are now all summoned with letters printed in seven languages as well as English to ‘encourage’ non-English speakers, it said.
The agency, part of Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke’s Ministry of Justice, said the ‘language addendum’ sent out with each jury summons ‘is aimed at people who cannot read English very well but can speak English so would be able to serve on a jury’.
Criminologists and MPs said yesterday that they were worried about inclusion of those with poor English on juries.
Douglas Carswell, Tory MP for Clacton, said: ‘The jury system is founded on the idea that we are all tried by our peers. If your peers cannot speak English, or read or write it properly, how can you have confidence you will get justice?’
He added: ‘Ministers in successive governments have stated that they are going to curb the effects of multiculturalism, but the bureaucrats keep on putting forms and documents into dozens of languages.’
Dr David Green, of the Civitas think-tank, said: ‘If you can’t even read the letter summoning you for jury service, you are not fit to be a juror.’
The Courts and Tribunals Service said multi-language summonses were introduced two years ago. One reason was that they allow those who do not read English to avoid the risk of being prosecuted for failing to reply. Ignoring a summons can bring a £1,000 fine.
A spokesman said: ‘HMCTS is committed to encouraging the widest possible participation by the public. The language addendum was introduced in 2009 to ensure no juror is disadvantaged by information being provided only in English and Welsh.
‘The concern was that members of the public were being summoned for jury service where potentially they may not understand what was being asked of them and that they needed to complete the summons.’
He continued: ‘The addendum is available in seven languages and is aimed at people who cannot read English very well but can speak English so would be able to serve on a jury.
‘It also encourages jurors with questions or difficulties completing the reply to contact the summoning bureau, which would decide whether the person was capable of serving as a juror.’
The spokesman added: ‘If a juror attends court and there is a doubt about their capacity to act effectively due to insufficient understanding of English, the matter will be brought to the attention of the trial judge who could excuse them. In more complex cases, such as fraud cases, where jurors may be expected to read documents as part of the evidence, an assessment of whether the juror can serve on that trial will be made at court with judicial input.’
The languages on the addendum are Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati, Polish, Cantonese, and Arabic. In Wales jurors are also sent information in Welsh.
Dr Green, of Civitas, added: ‘A distinction is being drawn between speaking and reading English and I question that. It is very rare to have a case in which there is no reading at all.
‘Jury trial involves serious accusations and the possibility of serious punishment. The whole paraphernalia of the trial, including the high standards demanded of the lawyers, is designed to ensure justice. The same rigour ought to apply to the selection of the jury.’
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