Sometimes, my writer’s imagination colours what I expect from an experience. When I went camping I hoped I’d have a famous five adventure (I didn’t). And this past fortnight, when I was called for jury service, although I hoped for something akin to Twelve Angry Men, I had a suspicion it wouldn’t be quite like that. You’re chosen for jury service at random, receiving a summons with dire warnings about what will happen to you if you don’t attend. The first day is like the first day at school as we report in and wait in a nervous huddle to see what happens next.
We’re led to the jury assembly area. From now on, we’re divided from anyone else who enters the court building. We have our own entrance to the building and to the court rooms. We’ll become well-acquainted with the assembly room over the next fortnight. They do try to cater for us, with a couple of TVs, a small cafeteria, a pool table and warnings to bring something to amuse ourselves with. But this doesn’t quite make up for the fact that we are confined to this room, unable to leave except at lunch time or if called into court. The room is institutional: sickly yellow walls, green vinyl chairs and a green and purple patterned carpet (I study the carpet a lot). There’s a little excitement on the first morning as we’re led into a court room to watch a DVD about being a juror. There aren’t many of us, so we think we stand a good chance of being chosen, until we return to the assembly area to find that 50 or so other potential jurors have appeared.
And so the waiting begins. The whiteboard tells us how many trials are due to start that day, but this doesn’t account for those that will not go ahead for one reason or another. The day is marked by two flutters of excitement, at 10.30 and 2pm, when ushers sweep into the room to claim the juries for various courts. Every time the jury officer gets a phone call, or leaves her desk, the anticipation builds, as she may be about to announce that a new jury panel has been called. Names are chosen at random – some of us will spend a fortnight in the room never being called. And it’s a strange kind of waiting. Not the kind where you can really settle into a book or some writing, because a part of you is always on the alert. You can be called at a moment’s notice, including just before lunch or at the end of the day. They say the wheels of justice turn slowly and they aren’t kidding.
I’m called to my first panel half an hour before lunch on the second day. Fifteen people are called to the panel. We all enter the court room and wait anxiously as twelve names are called. Fortunately I don’t have to suffer the misery of being rejected and I’m sworn in to my first jury. When you’re not on a jury, you watch those who are jurors come and go as though they’re a breed apart – you really want to be one of them instead of one of the rejects sat in the holding pen. And then, the magic moment arrives, and you are a juror – and you feel different. There’s a little strut in your step as you’re called to your court by your usher, feeling sorry for those left behind. When you return to the assembly area, it’s with a small sense of freedom as your timetable is now dictated by the judge. That afternoon, we listen to some evidence, but there are delays and ‘matters of law’ to be discussed behind the scenes. Eventually, we’re informed that the trial won’t go ahead due to lack of evidence. I’ve spent an hour and a half in total as a juror in my first week.
In the second week, I’m called again. This trial lasts, so I’m able to see the process through. The court room is very modern and much more attractive than our holding area. The judge is sharp, smart and relatively young, sitting at his bench in the most comfortable chair in the room, beneath the royal coat of arms (because judges are official representatives of the crown). The barristers, on the other hand, are like every stereotype of a barrister I’d imagined: be-wigged older men with very posh accents, their smart suits only just visible beneath robes that look as though they need an iron. We’re reminded that it’s us, the jury, who are the judges here. Although the judge is responsible for matters of law, it’s we who decide the outcome. We’re also reminded that it isn’t up to the defence to prove the innocence of the defendant, it’s up to the prosecution to prove the defendant’s guilt, beyond reasonable doubt. We’ve all heard this before in fiction, but being part of it makes the principle sink in. And there is an added complication in modern times – we’re warned very clearly not to discuss the case using social media, or to try to research it using the Internet. In the end, our deliberations don’t take long. There’s no need to be Henry Fonda. We all know that the case hasn’t been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. We give someone good news that day, bringing to an end a two year period of waiting for the defendant.
When my jury service is over, part of me is sad that it’s ending. The courts are in a spectacular location on the quayside (of which more in another post) so for half an hour each morning I spend some time enjoying the view. And once I settle into the waiting, I manage to read a novel and draft three short stories. Ultimately though, I’ve loved being part of this experience. At the end of our trial, the judge thanks us and reminds us that as jurors, it’s us, by our decisions, who are upholding the standard of justice in the land. It has been proposed a number of times in the UK that the right to trial by jury for less serious cases should be abolished. Under those proposals, the trial I was involved in would most likely never have gone beyond a magistrates’ court. While I can appreciate the costs involved in a trial at the crown courts, I think something valuable would begin to be eroded by limiting the crimes that can be tried by a jury. For all its eccentricities and inconvenience, I felt as though by serving as a juror, I’d done something important.