I've recently completed a stint of jury service, which lasted a little over two weeks at York Crown Court. For obvious reasons I can't blog about the trials I was involved with, but it was a fascinating couple of weeks, and it would be a shame not to share some of that experience with you.
Whenever I mentioned my upcoming service to friends and colleagues, it was met with one of two responses - either "Ugh, I'd hate that! God, I really would dread doing jury service!" or "You lucky sod, I'd love to do that, but I've never been asked!" - so the thought of serving on a jury obviously polarises people, and I must confess to feeling a certain dread when I initially received my summons.
My duty was a long time coming. I was originally summoned in early 2005 to attend in April of that year, but as that coincided with my wedding, I deferred until the Autumn. When that time approached, I received a phone call to say that they had too many potential jurors for the week in question, and gave me the option of deferring until the fortnight of my choice in 2006. It's quite a strange question to suddenly be asked - "Just pick a week!", the moody woman on the phone instructed me, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I might have to give it more than a moment's consideration. It would have been easier had they not given me any option! Well, I decided that I would rather take the short stroll to court during the summer months, but not when Jocelyn was on summer vacation from her teaching job - so it was that I came to be pitching up at York Crown Court one Monday morning a few weeks ago.
It would be churlish of me not to mention the architecture at this point. The court building at York is gorgeous, steeped in history, and sits close to Clifford's Tower and the Castle Museum. It must be a lovely place in which to work, especially in the summer months.
It came as a surprise to me how friendly and down to earth all the staff were. From the security guards who checked my bags each morning to the ushers and the guy who had responsibility for the jurors, everybody was pleasant and human, in stark contrast to the perceived "serious" and sombre nature of the surroundings. They did everything to put myself and my fellow jurors at our ease, and it was telling that whilst on our first day many people turned up in shirt and tie, the standard of dress noticeably declined on the following days. There is little pretence required in the role of juror - you're there to represent the average man on the street, and if that means wearing jeans and t-shirt, then so be it.
If you find yourself summoned for jury service, then my number one piece of advice to you is this: Take something to read. There is a lot of sitting around, and no guarantee that you will even see a trial during your service - some element of redundancy is necessary in case a juror's suitability is challenged (e.g. if they know the defendant or a key witness), and a surprisingly large number of trials do not occur due to guilty pleas being entered at the last minute. It can be a boring time for those of you sitting in the jury waiting room, so a newspaper or good book is highly recommended.
On my first day I was sent home at about 1300.
On my second day I was sent home at about 1230.
On my third day, at lunchtime I was sent home and told that due to a lack of cases there was no need for me to return until the following week.
I felt a bit cheated at this point. Here I was, diligently offering my time to faithfully try a charged peer, and my services were not required. I headed back to the office for two days sulking at the court service in general.
The following Monday, I headed back to the court, where I met with a new bunch of jurors who were just starting their stint - they were easily distinguishable by their shirts and ties and slightly nervous expressions - had I looked like that just seven days ago? I scoffed and reassured them that, if my experience thus far was anything to go by, they would not see the inside of a courtroom. How wrong I was...
That second week, I made up eight-and-one-third percent of the jury in two cases. The first was a relatively minor burglary case, the second a much more serious set of charges. The atmosphere in the courtroom for both cases was necessarily formal and precise, but on no occasion did I feel nervous or intimidated - indeed, it felt quite proper and natural to be sitting on the jury benches, carefully listening to the cases made by both prosecution and defence.
I have to say, there was a great deal to listen to and absorb. Prior to my experience, I thought that a day running from 1030 to 1630 with 75 minutes lunch break sounded like a doddle. But you try listening to two and a half hours of continuous evidence from a witness - noting their expressions, mannerisms, gestures - considering how this squares with other evidence heard earlier, or several days ago, and keeping track of the different arguments and lines of questioning. It can be quite gruelling, especially if your daily work involves dealing more with computers than people! So I was always glad when 1630 rolled around, and it certainly didn't feel like I'd only done half a day's work.
At the end of each day the judge advised us to "switch off", relax at home and avoid thinking about the case overnight. That really is easier said than done. It's not like watching a TV drama - this is real life, with a real defendant facing gaol, real victims and real consequences - and you can read about the cases in the local paper each day. You have to take it seriously, and I'm pleased to say that I felt everyone on the two juries that I sat on did so.
As I said earlier, it would be unlawful and improper for me to comment on the cases in question, suffice to report that in both trials we found the defendant guilty on one or more counts. Neither decision was easy or straightforward, and they were both preceded by many hours of engaging and measured debate that actually helped to restore my faith in my fellow man (no, honestly).
Subsequently, I learned details of antecedents or other information about both defendants that, if I had that information beforehand, would have made the decision much easier. Put bluntly - if you know someone has a long record of committing a certain crime, common sense tells you that they are likely to be guilty of committing the same crime again! But, rightly, such information is not made available, and you have to consider only the pertinent facts - which often do not tell the whole story.
At the end of my jury service, I bounded back to the office with renewed confidence in the legal process and the British judicial system. Does that sound corny? It isn't supposed to. Seeing justice being administered first-hand and having a say in the outcome really is an incredibly empowering feeling. Would I want to do it every day? Emphatically not. Trying one's peers is definitely a duty best carried out on relatively few occasions during a lifetime - the randomness and large numbers involved obviously serve to create a balance and deliver accurate verdicts more often (kind of like choosing which Big Brother housemate to evict?!). But yes, I enjoyed my jury service. And if the envelope with bold pink lettering comes dropping through the letterbox again, I'll look forward to the break from my usual routine.