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Is justice affected by people’s ethnicity?

Members of a jury

Members of juries play a crucial role as arbiters of justice in courtrooms. But in spite of efforts to reduce bias, evidence suggests that factors outside of the details of a case - such as the ethnicity of the people involved - can affect attitudes towards defendants, witnesses and victims. Injustice in the criminal court system has long-term implications for people’s lives, not just when it comes to initial verdicts but prison sentences and opportunities to re-enter society.

A research team led by Dr Lara Frumkin is exposing how bias towards ethnic minorities has influenced decisions, with the aim of helping to establish a new culture of best practice in courts.

The UK justice system is built around the principle of unbiased judgement: meaning verdicts that are based solely on evidence presented in court. With this in mind, advice on bias is an important part of jury instructions. Cross-examination of defendants and witnesses, alongside the use of expert witnesses, is intended to lead to a balanced picture of evidence for juries. Research, however, has highlighted how other factors, including ethnicity, have continued to affect jury attitudes and verdicts.

Dr Lara Frumkin, Head of Discipline in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) at The Open University, said: “Tackling injustices is crucial to the making of a fairer society and ensuring there is trust and confidence in national systems, particularly when it comes to the justice system, where the stakes are high, and bias based on ethnicity can have long-term detrimental effects for individuals, families and their communities. The ultimate aim of our Open Societal Challenges work is to inform and provide recommendations for best practice in criminal courtrooms in England, Wales and Scotland.”

Much of the previous research investigating the influence of ethnicity on decision-making in the criminal justice system has been conducted in the US - highlighting the need for insights and understanding specific to the UK’s context. The team from FASS will review data collected from real court cases and studies to examine in detail whether and where ethnicity plays a role in courtroom decision making, in terms of both verdicts and sentencing. It will look at examples of how different minority ethnic groups have been treated, as well as people from the UK’s white British majority.

As the research progresses, findings are to be shared with the full range of stakeholders and an expert advisory group in order to ensure insights are grounded in realities and can have the greatest impact: a set of recommendations and advice that will be used by courts to reduce bias, help inform the work of justice and equalities charities, as well as providing support to people going through the justice system themselves.

Over time, acting as a foundation of evidence and best practice for change, the project aims to play its part in reducing instances of inequality in justice in court systems worldwide.