NEWS: ‘I swear by Almighty God’: research reveals juror bias

Thanks Tim for drawing our attention to this research within the legal world.

By 4 April 2023 for the Law Gazette (UK)

Defendants who do not ‘swear by Almighty God’ in court are more likely to be found guilty by jurors with strong religious beliefs, a study published today in The British Journal of Psychology suggests. The research has prompted Humanists UK, a group representing non-religious people, to call for an end to defendants swearing an oath in front of jurors.

The research was conducted by Professor Ryan McKay of Royal Holloway, Dr Will Gervais, of Brunel University, and Professor Colin Davis, of University of Bristol.

It consists of three studies. The first study explored whether court witnesses who choose to swear an oath are more religious than those who choose to affirm. Two in 10 who chose the oath did so because they believed it was the more credible choice.

Jury seats

Humanists UK has called for an end to defendants and jurors swearing an oath in court

The second study explored whether the type of legal declaration made by defendants in a trial can influence perceptions of their probable guilt. A hypothetical defendant who stood trial for the murder of his wife was perceived as slightly more likely to be guilty when described as choosing to affirm than when described as choosing to swear an oath.

The third study explored whether the type of legal declaration made by defendants in a trial can influence the trial outcome. Participants were sworn in as jurors in a mock trial and 28% chose to swear an oath. Mock jurors who swore an oath found those who affirmed guilty at a higher rate than those who swore an oath.

McKay, who led the study, said: ‘If taking the oath is seen as a sign of credibility, this could lead to discrimination against defendants who are not willing to swear by God. An earlier proposal to abolish the oath in England and Wales was defeated when opponents argued that the oath strengthens the value of witnesses’ evidence. This is ironic, as it seems to acknowledge that swearing an oath may give an advantage in court.’

Humanists UK suggests the oath should either be abolished, with only a secular affirmation allowed, or religious people swear an oath in private in front of court officials, away from the jury.

Richy Thompson, director of public affairs and policy at Humanists UK, said there was no reason why jurors should know a defendant’s religion or belief. ‘Given that prejudice based on religion or belief is still too common in the UK today, it would be best to reform the oath and affirmation system to one that doesn’t reveal this information to jurors,’ Thompson said.

Go to Juror Bias to see the discussion on this work.


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