Jury service is one of those things that happens to other people.
It’s a strange experience. You and 11 total strangers are given collective power over another person’s future.
You have to decide whether they are lying, whether the witnesses are credible and how to interpret the evidence.
Usually, you’re instructed to come to a unanimous verdict.
Because these 11 people are the only people with which you can discuss the case, you become quickly bonded to them. You’ve only just met but you’re all sharing the same secret.
The idea is that the group represents a cross-section of the society potentially wronged by the actions of the defendant.
After covering the odd trial from the public gallery as reporter, during which time my focus was on the barristers, witnesses and judge, rather than the silent jury, I recently got called up to sit on the other side.
It was a lot more intense and emotionally draining than I expected. Here’s what to look out for if it ever happens to you:
- The first thing that happens is a letter arrives summoning you to attend court for jury service. You can defer once, as I had to, but after that you have to go. To refuse is to be in contempt of court, risking a £1,000 fine.
- On the first day, you sign in at the door of the jury assembly room, which is like an enormous doctor’s waiting room with a few TVs on the wall. Once in, you’re given a sheet to claim expenses and shown a short video explaining the jury selection process and what you’ll have to do.
- Then comes the waiting and there’s a fair bit of it. Some people chat, others read, quite a few go to sleep although the room is likely to be brightly lit. No-one touched the Scrabble when I was there. You can’t leave the room and mill about the rest of the court in case you get approached by defendants and other people involved in the cases.
- When a case goes to court, a computer picks 15 names at random to form a jury-in-waiting. If you’re picked, your name will be read out and you’ll be led to a back corridor behind the court room. Suddenly, and for no real reason, you feel slightly more important than a few moments ago. Despite this, the corridor is not a salubrious place. The wallpaper is peeling, and the carpets are old and battered. You wait again before being led into the court.
- Of the 15, only 12 names are read out to form the jury. The other three go back to the waiting room. You stand and swear, either on a holy book such as the Bible or Koran or on your own honour, to perform as well as you can.
- Once sat down you are welcomed into the court by the judge, in the manner of a kindly uncle greeting a shy nephew or niece into his house. Then the barristers set out their cases and witnesses are called. You are given a charge sheet, which describes what the defendant is accused of, as well as the admissions sheet, which lists the agreed facts of the case.
- You may feel yourself, as I did, enter a state of hyper-attentiveness. You take notice of every voice quaver, every hesitation in the witnesses’ description of what happened detail. You find yourself not just analysing their character but also that of the lawyers doing the cross-examination. You can’t help sneaking a glance at the defendant in the dock, but try not to meet their eyes.
- The defendant is in the dock. This can go on for several days and lots of evidence can be presented depending on the case. We saw photos, had transcripts of police interviews, and other exhibits. In some cases, this evidence might be deeply disturbing and you are allowed to leave the courtroom if you feel ill.
- In the evenings, you go home and think about the case. It rarely leaves your mind and it’s tiring. You think about the defendant and how they ended up in that position; to be accused of a crime. You have been given a deeply personal insight into that person’s life.
- Finally, the trial ends and it is down to you and your group to decide whether the defendant is guilty or innocent of the charges. Before dismissing you, the judge gives instructions to use common sense and personal life experience to make your collective decision. You are led into the jury room, which is a bare box with a table and 12 chairs. There’s a male and female toilet. On the wall is button to ring the court usher when a decision is reached. Your phones are taken and the door is locked.
- First, a foreman is chosen. That person leads the discussion, takes votes and ultimately gives the final verdict to the court. In the court, you were the audience. Now it’s time to speak and act.
- There is some tension and disagreement but none of it is personal. Again there is a feeling of total focus, but combined with a heavy responsibility. Whichever way the verdict goes, you are likely accusing someone — the defendant or witnesses — of either lying or not telling the whole truth.
- The discussions can last a while and different votes are taken. People shift positions, different perspectives are considered, and finally a verdict is reached. The button is pressed.
- At that moment there is something like a collective sigh in the room and people begin to talk excitedly about other things not related to the case. A weight has been lifted and the duty is done. It’s a giddy feeling, mixed with the realisation that collectively you are about to change the course of someone’s life. It could be the biggest decision you’ve made that’s not directly related to your own future.
- The jury is ushered back into the room. The foreman gives the verdict. If it’s a guilty verdict, the defendant could be sentenced there and then. There’s a discussion between the advocates and judge about how much time the defendant should serve in prison. This time, you don’t risk a look over to the dock.
- The jury is thanked and dismissed by the judge. You say your goodbyes to the other 11. You will likely never these people again.
The trial I served on only lasted a few days but it felt much longer.
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