Trial by jury

juryimageThe envelope had an official look about it, an air of something about to make an impact on life. Inside was my summons to Jury Service, a civic duty that anyone between 18 and 76 and on the electoral roll can be called to fulfil.

It is possible to defer but, as being ‘a scary thought’ and ‘logistically awkward’ were not on the list of exceptions, I registered my availability for the initial two-week period and waited anxiously. As with impending parenthood, people are very keen to share their own experience and the more extreme third-party anecdotes: jurors sent home on the first day with no need to return or people kept for six months on gruesome murder trials.

Jurors serve in Crown Courts and the cases that make it there are the more serious ones. I was concerned about what I might face and how long it might take. In the end I sat for a single case that lasted a week and after the verdict was delivered we were formally dismissed for at least two years.

One thing that everyone agreed on was that there is a lot of waiting around. My first day proved that right. About fifty potential jurors sat nervously, watching induction videos, completing forms, waiting to hear our names. Meanwhile, more confident dozens arrived, were called and disappeared behind code-locked doors, presumably to their on-going cases. An anxious moment arose as we were asked to indicate any issues that a possible three-week trial might cause and people tried to make a weighty case for the importance of their work, family responsibilities, holiday plans and golf tournaments.

Eventually, my name was called, along with 15 or so others. We were led down interminable corridors, finally arriving at a court room where we were read a charge and a list of dates, times, people and places. This process allows anyone who might have a connection with the case, however slight and unexpected, to be identified or identify themselves and be sent away. Twelve names were then called out and our jury was formed, with the trial starting the next morning.

A jury is selected at random and is designed to represent a cross-section of society. My fellow jurors were aged from early twenties to early seventies and from all walks of life. There are very clear rules about what can and cannot be discussed during a trial, and what struck me particularly was the bond that quickly formed between us: for a short time, a motley bunch of strangers is brought together by knowledge and experience that cannot be shared with anyone outside the court or anywhere else except the jury waiting room. We were in this together.

In court, the judge made it clear that while he was the judge of law, we as the jury were to be the judge of fact: it was our job to listen to the evidence in order to determine what had taken place, and then he would, if necessary, apply the appropriate sentence. It was for us to consider the relative weight we would place on each piece of witness, CCTV, photographic, medical and forensic evidence presented by both sides.

If we had any questions or concerns, whether about the legal process or specific things we had seen or heard, these could be raised with the clerk before, during or after any court session, and issues would then be addressed by the judge in court. It is a strange and necessarily formal world but it is clear that many efforts have been made to ensure that ordinary people with little or no experience of legal life feel able to play their part.

The adversarial set-up, Prosecution versus Defence, is a rigorous way to interrogate opposing versions of a situation, to try to get to the truth of what might or might not have taken place. There was almost none of the fictional courtroom’s flashy rhetoric. Instead, there was the repeated challenge to think very carefully about interpretation and conclusions: what if, in fact, this is what was said, this is what happened? The truth might be somewhere between each version – and possibly never fully known – but by hearing argument and evidence followed by cross-examination and counter-argument, I saw how the structure tries to ensure that judgments are made carefully and thoughtfully.

The deliberations of the jury before arriving at the verdict are the one thing that remains confidential even after a judgement has been delivered, any sentence pronounced and the case has become a matter of public record. I had been concerned about this final part of the duty and the need to reach a unanimous verdict – a brief foray into politics one lunchtime illustrated quite how many different views twelve people could hold! However, a framework provided by the judge took us through a very clear set of questions: by discussing and answering each in turn, as far as was necessary, we would determine whether or not the defendant could be found guilty. Whilst this was not an easy process, it was straightforward, and I very much appreciated the chance to review and discuss everything. It also became clear to me the value and wisdom of the jury hearings: twelve individuals bring very different experiences to the situation which goes a long way to ensuring that bias is challenged, and I found it very reassuring to know that it was a shared responsibility when we reached our verdict.

My week in the courtroom was demanding and exhausting, and a valuable insight into the British justice system.

Eve West

February – March 2020