In September I laughingly boasted to a friend that I had never been called for jury duty which I found quite surprising. More fool me. Three weeks later, the dreaded letter arrived out of the blue. Some malevolent machine had drawn my name out of the unlucky lottery and I was summoned to appear.
It is quite an inverse lottery. According to the letter about 200,000 are chosen at random every year from the electoral register. I was given the option to defer but decided not to. Any time that you block a fortnight out unless it is around Christmas is a considerable nuisance. The two weeks selected and the times that you had to attend were as inconvenient as most but not as bad as others, so I bit the bullet and agreed to attend on the dates requested.
I did a little asking around and found some people who had already done jury duty including one person who already been summoned twice. What was it like I asked with the most common response was, “boring!” How accurate a summary that proved to be!
So you turn up as requested at 9.30am on the Monday along with a load of other people who have not been in a court before. You are all ‘week one’ people. Another lot started the previous week and could turn up later especially if they were allocated to a trial and have been given a specific start time. The proceedings commence with a talk about all sorts of things including how to claim your expenses and what it will be like in court. Then you wait to be allocated to a jury.
About 40 of us were asked to fill in a questionnaire about the possibility of serving on an eight-week trial which would conclude after Christmas. Your responses are fed into the presiding judge, and I must have given cogent reasons, as I swerved that one. Then you wait and wait and wait to be called.
Selecting the jurors
The room in which you wait, the jury assembly area, was not seen at its best on that first morning. It was a dark horrible day, and the light did not seem to get very far in. It was a bit better when the sun came up for subsequent days.
In fact, I waited until after Wednesday lunch time when I was one of 15 called to make a jury. Why 15? Well there are always three spare at the start of the trial in case they discover that they know any of the participants either side of the dock. Precisely 12 names are chosen by lottery to become the jury if there are no problems.
For our first trial about 25% of the time was taken up by the judge slowly going through how the case would be dealt with and our work, roles and responsibilities as jurors. This was cut considerably for the next trial, because although we were a different jury on the second week, we had all done at least one before. This process was very fair to all concerned and especially the accused, who could see justice being done at every stage of the proceedings.
One word against another
On reflection, after both trials that I took part in came to an end I had to ask myself, “why had anyone bothered?” Of course, you cannot go into details of the cases, but they had one crucial thing in common. They were one man’s word against another.
Two tired barristers in each case sought to convince the jury that their version of events was right. But the problem, in both cases, was the lack of corroboration. Given that we had to find someone guilty beyond reasonable doubt, how could you do that when it was essentially one person’s word against another?
In both cases the jury deliberations were over in about ten minutes. In both cases we thought we knew the truth but there was no way that we could make a definitive case for or against guilt, and in those circumstances we were reminded over and over again that we had to have no reasonable doubt and if we had the verdict had to be not guilty.
That was, to me, the most reassuring part of the process. The judge and the prosecuting barrister in addition to the defending barrister hammered home again and again that the highest level of certainty was required to make a conviction. That is British justice at its best.
British justice at its best?
However, I can only conclude that the system as a whole is British justice at its most mediocre. Of the ten days that I ‘voluntarily’ gave to the state I was effectively used for only two of them. My time, and those of my fellow jurors, seemed to be of little value in the system as the time needs of judges and barristers took precedence.
I believe that it is not beyond the wit of humankind to improve the system. I have no doubt at all that judges and barristers were doing other things before 10/10.30am when the court convened and carried on working after 4.00pm when the court closed. That work could surely have been systematised into more coherent chunks, with judges in particular allocating time for other work outside what might be normal court sitting hours.
The whole process was snarled up by waiting and poor systems. That costs money and delays justice. Someone needs to sort out these systems – fortunately I’m only a councillor so it definitely will not be me!