Whose peers are they anyway?
What do you get when you bring together an agoraphobic, an East End wide boy, and a Muslim who believes that Salman Rushdie should die? A fair verdict. As the Home Secretary moves to limit juries, Rachel Halliburton speaks for the defence
Friday 21 May 1999
This is one of the paradoxes of jury service. Crime covers some of the most fascinating areas of human behaviour, but once it arrives in the courtroom the legal procedures can often be lengthy and sleep-inducing. You quickly discover you are not an extra for Kavanagh QC, or in a glittering sub-plot to a John Grisham novel. But at the end of the day this does not matter: once you've got over the fact that - despite its theatricality - the court is not a piece of legal theatre, you find yourself face to face with some of the most important questions you've ever had to tackle.
You never forget the moment when you make a decision that could lead to someone going behind bars. I was serving on a jury that found the defendants guilty, and the silence that fell after we had made our decision showed that each one of us was profoundly disturbed by the fact that we might have had a part in depriving other humans of their freedom. It's strange how you can build up a relationship with people without even talking to them. Every twitch that the defendants had made, every expression that had flitted across their faces, made us feel that we knew them - and so added to the responsibility that we felt when we convicted them.
In my life, certainly, it has been a sobering reminder of the contract I have with society as a democratic citizen. And yet Home Secretary Jack Straw's sudden announcement that defendants on trial for crimes such as theft, possession of drugs and assault cannot choose to go before a Crown Court and have a jury - as opposed to being tried by magistrates - means fewer people will be exposed to this process.
As leading criminal solicitor Stephen Gilchrist points out, it is ironic that in the same month that this Government introduces citizenship classes into the education system, it cuts down significantly on civic duties. In addition to this, it has failed to take into account the protests of a former shadow home secretary that it is very important that professionals and the middle classes should not be allowed to wriggle out of such duties, that politician being, ahem, Jack Straw.
Our own particular trial was for fraud, which is another area of law that has caused the jury system to be called into question. None of us knew on that particular day, when we walked into the Old Bailey and were closed off with 11 strangers, exactly how it would affect us. Fraud is a strange beast: it has none of the grisly immediacy of rape or murder, and none of the human interest of crimes such as theft or arson. We would not have to go through the trauma of looking at harrowing photographs: instead, we were to be subjected to armies of invoices and instructed in the minutiae of accounting techniques.
However, this did not change the end result. It was on the basis of our understanding, or not understanding, these technicalities that the men in front of us would end up in prison. Were we qualified to do this? Were we realising or threatening the rights of these men by taking it on ourselves to do what the professionals might do better?
It was clear to all of us from the start that to do the defendants justice, it was very important to observe the way in which the barristers acted. There is a dangerous no man's land between imagining you understand evidence and genuinely grasping the point: and in the biased rhetoric of court, thinking you have understood can be as much to do with the barrister's tone of voice as with the facts laid before you. Over the months, rhetorical landmines became increasingly obvious. Witnesses who had been assertive could later be referred to as defensive, while any part of a witness's evidence repeated with a disbelieving sneer automatically lost its credibility.
It became an in-joke to identify how each barrister had honed his individual technique. Each one had his own strategy and rhythm, and it got to the stage where we all knew at least five minutes before the victim in the witness box when the lawyer was going to go in for the kill. The most deadly technique was a mixture of hypnosis and sharp-tongued attacks. The barrister would begin with a line of questioning that would give new meaning to pedantry, and just as we were all about to fall asleep, would attack. The witness, almost comatose by this point, would be totally unprepared. Frequently, the evidence fell to pieces.
Another who was as British as the bulldog (and looked like one) would use the ultimate courtesy to stalk his prey. Such was his tone of voice that if he had offered scones and cream to the witness in mid cross-examination, it would have seemed perfectly appropriate. So swamped was the witness by politeness, that in the course of this chat, out would pop the most unfortunate of revelations. At which point the bulldog would drop the scones and cream and go straight for the jugular.
To anyone watching us working the case out from the public gallery, it would have been clear that we were a very young jury. Although we had very little in common, we managed to get through the case as friends - sharing in-jokes about the courtroom, making observations on the witnesses' dress-sense, revealing aspects of our own lives. There was no doubt that we would not have met each other in any other circumstances: one of our number was agoraphobic, and did not normally leave the house; one was Muslim and believed Salman Rushdie deserved to die; one was a wide boy from the East End.
But it was our very diversity that made it all make sense in the end. Each of us had our own prejudices, and spending time with each other made us not only reconsider how we lived, but also made us aware of the need to suppress such prejudices when we gave the verdict.
It was obvious that the presence of a jury stopped the court from becoming an anti-democratic, closed society, a playground for the elite to deal with those less clever than themselves. It was strangely ironic that following the trial, we realised that it was the only place where we could exist like this: after trying to organise a reunion, which failed because we could not agree on a venue, we never saw each other again.
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