Gun case dropped

by Daniel on February 26, 2004

Hurray for the jury system, as all right-thinking people should be shouting. The Katharine Gun case has been dropped. And the best thing is, the reason for which it’s been dropped.

A lot of people had thought, when the rumours first started spreading that Blair et al were declaring victory and departing the field on this one, that it turned on a neat but unsatisfying technical point of UK law. The idea here was that Gun was planning to call in her defence the legal advice prepared for Blair by the Attorney-General on the legality of the Iraq War in the circumstances in which it was fought. Either out of embarrassment at what that advice said (unlikely) or on the general principle of good government that the Attorney General’s legal advice is never made public (more likely), the government couldn’t agree to this, and therefore the trial couldn’t be brought as it would clearly breach Gun’s human rights and natural justice to put her on trial while depriving her of her defence.

But that ain’t what happened. The clear wording of the Crown Prosecution Service’s statement and the spin from press officers suggests something even more astounding; they dropped this case because they thought they wouldn’t win it. Basically, Blair and pals decided that they did not like the odds of finding a jury of twelve Britons which didn’t contain at least two or three members who were so angry about the war in general that they’d refuse to convict Gun on more or less any charges.

That’s fantastic, for the following reasons:

1. Forget your views on the war itself. Saddam’s gone and nobody can bring him back. All the Gun case was about was whether the UK government should have lied and bullied in the run-up to the war. Nobody will be killed or tortured if we establish the principle that this is not the way in which we wish to be governed, and that was the only issue of Grand Politics at stake here.

2. It establishes a precedent (not a particularly strong one in the legal sense, but one that could be taken as indicative and quite a strong one in practical terms) that there is an implicit defence of justification in charges under the Official Secrets Act. This seems to me like a very attractive position indeed; it is still against the law for spooks to leak, but in extremis, they can follow their conscience, as long as they’re prepared to believe that their cause is so obviously right (or their perception of the national interest so widespread) that they’re sure that a jury would take their side. So in other words, the test of where the dividing line is set between “who are you to make decisions” and “obeying orders is no defence”, is to be set not by spooks interpreting the law, or by politicians, but by juries. Who have a long, long history as an entirely salutary and liberalising force in British politics from the earliest days of the Trade Union movement.

3. And if anyone asks you what you achieved by going on the march to Hyde Park, you can point to this as a definite achievement. Because Blair was scared by the sight of how many people really opposed his war, a small but significant chink has been made in Britain’s ridiculous Official Secrets infrastructure. It’s rare that people stand up to their rulers without some good coming of it, and this appears to be the case here.

Hurray for juries and hurray for the fear of juries, that’s what I say.



jamie 02.26.04 at 7:15 pm

Absolutely right in every particular. But how long do you think it will take for the government to have another crack at withdrawing the right to trial by jury, especially in “security-related” cases?


Iysam 02.26.04 at 7:45 pm

A long, long time…

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Joshua W. Burton 02.26.04 at 8:26 pm

Isn’t the technical term for this “jury nullification”? The fear of juries was no cause for rejoicing in the state where I grew up.

I think a case can be made that the jury system helps ensure that governance will be *no worse than* the popular will commands. But to say as Daniel does that “it’s rare that people stand up to their rulers without some good coming of it” seems to argue either that the lynch-and-acquit American South was a statistical fluke, or that it brought some good. I’m not entirely happy with either line.


dsquared 02.26.04 at 8:35 pm

What’s wrong with “statistical fluke”? I’m not aware of similar problems anywhere else, or in the American South outside a specific and quite short period of history.


Rob 02.26.04 at 9:16 pm

Dan–I guess it depends if you consider 100 years to be a short period of history…


miaow mix 02.26.04 at 10:33 pm

A rather good treatment of the Official Secrets Act here


Bob 02.27.04 at 12:05 am

Out of historic interest, the leaked memorandum from the US intelligence services on bugging UN diplomatic missions was reported in The Observer on 2 March 2003 here:,6903,905899,00.html

The text of the leaked US memorandum itself is here:,12239,905954,00.html

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