Jury Duty

Article excerpt

TRIAL by jury is a hallowed British institution. It represents the power of the people against the power of a potentially oppressive state. Yet curiously, when the summons to jury duty comes, many are reluctant to attend.

Approximately a quarter of a million people pass through the crown courts as members of a jury each year, a mere seven per cent of all trials conducted. The axe falls randomly. Some are selected two or three times in their lives, many not at all. And too many slip through the gaping holes in a system that lets off the professional and educated classes with greater ease than the working class and unemployed.

The summons I received in October to attend the Old Bailey in December was peremptory. An unwelcome invasion of the state into my life. My initial reaction was reluctance. But as I was neither over 70 nor under 18, mentally ill, a criminal, a member of the clergy, armed forces, law services or medical professions, I had no choice. I had to do my duty.

After a while, I began to look forward to the experience with excitement and expectation, tinged with more than a little apprehension. The responsibility of making a decision that may result in sending a person 'down' for several years is awesome. Armed with no legal knowledge, doubting my capabilities, I nervously joined the multitude of first day jurors that filed through the glass doors of the 1970s annexe of the Old Bailey one cold winter morning.

First we were shown a clear and concise video on what to expect and what was expected of us. It did nothing to dispel the mystery. Then we were herded up to the fifth floor jury restaurant to await our summons, a wait that we had been promised would be tedious and long. At intervals bailiffs appeared and read out a list of names. A group of embarrassed looking individuals would shuffle off to the lift and down to whatever lay ahead.

In what seemed to be a relatively short time (I had diligently followed the advice issued to bring 'a book to read, crosswords or knitting' and was thoroughly wrapped up in my novel) my name was called. Fifteen or so of us were led downstairs along blue carpeted corridors and before we knew it into the court itself.

It was a shock. The courtroom was crammed. I experienced a strange feeling that a party had been going on and we were gatecrashers. All eyes were upon us: the defendant in the dock, the relatives and friends in the gallery above, the hawkish looking defence and prosecuting counsels with 'their learned juniors', the judge and the court officials. We were subjected to unabashed scrutiny, an on-the-spot appraisal of what they were all up against. Simultaneously I experienced a frisson of excitement, a thrilling realisation. We had the ultimate power in this courtroom. It was to us that the whole trial would be addressed.

Twelve names were read out, including my own. The remaining three jurors disappeared, presumably back upstairs to await another summons. We swore to 'try the defendant and give a true verdict according to evidence'. The charges were read. The defendant was accused of murder, a ritual killing. An audible ripple of dismay passed through us.

The prosecuting counsel informed us that it was their role to establish the 'burden of proof' for the Crown and that we were to decide our verdict 'beyond reasonable doubt', a tricky concept for how could 'reasonable' possibly be defined? The prosecution outlined their case (the defence are not required to so do though it would help a jury to know which tree it was barking up sometimes) and the trial began.

Later in the sanctuary of our oak panelled jury room the atmosphere relaxed and we had a chance to scrutinise each other. No chatting in the lift or in the jury restaurant for us. We had been separated from the rest of humanity with solemn and legally binding promises to keep mum. And for the duration of the trial we used a special entrance to come in and out. …