Saturday, 22 August 2009

Being a juror

It's been a funny old fortnight - extremely structured in one sense, yet all up in the air at the same time. This is probably a good way to sum up jury service, for which I've just completed a two week stint.

I got the summons in the post the best part of a year ago now, but managed to defer it twice due to bad timings and unavoidable circumstances. Obviously a blog isn't the place to go spouting off about all the specifics of the trials I was sworn in on, but I thought it might b
e useful or interesting to share my general jury service experiences here for reference.

If I'm honest, jury service is always something that I've been intrigued by in terms of the legal processes and the psychology of it all (I'm a huge fan of the film '12 Angry Men', pictured above), so I was pretty chuffed to have been randomly selected from the electoral register. Strangely the initial summons was actually addressed to 'Hilary Dunlop' as opposed to 'Hayley', but when I called to acknowledge the summons they insisted that it was definitely me who had been chosen. So I rocked up at the court on my designated day and got ushered into a big waiting room with around 75 or so others, where we watched a video and got given a talk about the general procedures we could expect over the coming days. In a separate room there was the same number of jurors again, who had started their stints the previous week. So at any given time there are around 150 jurors there, which I found quite surprising. The difference with a big Crown Court in London is that there are loads of courtrooms and lots of cases starting throughout the day. I don't know if these factors meant that me being selected as a juror for three trials across the two weeks was the norm or whether I was just lucky.

Well, I say lucky, but of course sitting on a jury isn't easy. Especially if, like me, you have the tendency to nod off at inappropriate moments. But the thing about listening to evidence in a trial is that you HAVE to listen, as ultimately the defendant's immediate future depends on you having paid attention in order to reach a fair verdict. So no napping for me. Although I found the procedures of each of the three trials extremely interesting, I did find the pressure on me, as well as the sheer level of concentration required to listen to hours and hours of evidence, extremely draining. I naively thought that the fortnight would possibly allow me to have a bit more free time than normal, but even though a typical day at the court would start at 10.15am and finish at around 4.30pm, at the end of most days I just wanted to go home straight away and sleep because my mind was full to the brim.

Each of the three trials I was sworn in on were relatively short ones, and for two of them we were deliberating the verdicts for a good few hours. For me, this was the worst part of the experience, as although I'm quite a headstrong person with often unmovable opinions, I also detest conflict and will instinctively do everything possible to keep the peace. In everyday life I tend to agree to disagree with someone if their opinion on something is in contrast to my own. However, when deliberating a verdict, agreeing to disagree simply isn't an option. It was certainly extremely revealing to see how a bunch of people who barely knew each other interacted in this kind of situation, especially in the presence of some very strong characters. I'd like to think that I remained calm and logical according to the legal guidance we had received, but on the other hand I also found it really difficult to detach myself emotionally.

Overall I wouldn't necessarily say that I 'enjoyed' the experience, although I certainly valued it. I discovered that I am able to stand my ground and argue a point rationally if I believe strongly enough in it, and I also met some lovely fellow jurors who truly did represent a huge cross-section of London. In fact, I was shocked at how many jurors were in their teens / early 20s; perhaps something to do with the fact that it's the summer holidays.

Some general tips and information if you get summoned:

  • Speak to your employer / HR department about it as soon as possible, as different employers handle jury service differently. All employers are legally obliged to let you have the time off, but they don't have to continue paying you (although most do I think). But if you do lose earnings as a result of having the time off work, the court will compensate for your financial losses up to a certain amount each day.
  • At my court we got given smart cards loaded with about £5.50 of credit each day which we could spend in the jurors restaurant. But if you choose to go out for lunch you'll get the money back instead (but no more than the daily limit on the card). Bear in mind that you can't go out for lunch if you're deliberating a verdict and I'd highly recommend that you bring in your own food if you think there's a chance you might be holed up in the room for a lengthy period.
  • There's aways the chance that you might get selected for a longer trial. When your name is called initially, you'll be told straight away how long the trial is expected to last (although you don't discover what crime the trial relates to until you are sworn in as a juror). If it's beyond what you can commit to then you can request to be excused from that particular trial. But this request has to be made to the judge and ultimately it's his / her decision about whether your reason is legitimate enough.
  • Take lots of books / magazines to read. Or ask about taking your laptop (they might have a wi-fi account you can use). I was fortunate in the sense that, because I did three trials, I didn't have to do that much sitting around. But I know of people who have literally had to sit in a jury waiting area, day in day out, for two weeks without getting chosen, so be prepared for a long, dull wait. Plus, even if you are selected for a jury, you're likely to get sent away a few times if the judge or barristers want to discuss a legal issue. From experience this could take an hour or so to resolve before you're ushered back into the courtroom.
  • Have an open mind. Listen to the evidence. Follow the judge's legal advice. Don't be bullied into changing your mind about something just because it's easier or more convenient for everyone else.
  • Get to know your fellow jurors as you'll be seeing a lot of them.
  • Oh, and tempting as it may be, don't Google anything or do your own independent research about anything to do with the trial whilst it's still going on as it's kind of against the law...