Civic duty

'Just too busy!' is the cry of professionals called up for jury service. But, says Polly Toynbee, it is time the middle classes recognised their ...
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Jury service is a civic duty. It is one important bulwark against injustice, a vital fail-safe in an inevitably flawed and sometimes corrupt system. In the end 12 good men and women tussle with the evidence as best they can and decide the fate of their peers.

But large numbers of people are skiving off. The Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, yesterday put his finger on a dangerous loophole in the system through which the middle classes are escaping their duty, and Labour is thus calling for a tightening of the rules. This is not only a matter of fairness, but of maintaining a vital balance in the composition of the jury to ensure as wide a cross section of the public as possible. We are in danger, he says, of having juries composed only of the unemployed, the old, or older housewives. The whole jury system is under threat, as judges and lawyers protest that many juries are too stupid to understand complex fraud cases.

Jack Straw says it has become far too easy to evade jury service with inadequate excuses, such as holidays or minor illnesses. Some professionals have a right to refuse - MPs, peers, doctors, dentists, nurses, vets and chemists and anyone in the armed forces. Asking around among friends and acquaintances, it didn't take me long to unearth a large number who had found it very easy to wriggle out of it. Anyone can escape it who earns a lot of money, loves their job, or imagines themselves indispensable. (No one is, of course. We all die in the end.)

Here I have to admit that I, too, have evaded it. I was in the middle of making a Panorama film against a tight deadline when the summons came. Someone told me that if I pleaded motherhood, I would be let off, so I told them I had a small child, and my excuse was immediately accepted, without further ado. I did have a small child, but I also had a nanny. I was told I probably wouldn't be called again until my child was over 16, and I have never heard from them since.

In truth, like many other evaders, I would love to do jury service. I would relish the drama of the court room, the chemistry of the oddly assorted jury. I am also curious to discover the truth of the many scurrilous stories about what jurors in long trials get up to. Old court reporters say that in long cases, the jury always stays out "for deliberations" over at least one night, because by then several of them are having affairs. Be that as it may, the thrill of the court room appeals to most people - but the middle classes are always too busy.

The Lord Chancellor's department was protesting yesterday about Jack Straw's allegations. It knew of no research whatever suggesting that middle- class people were avoiding their duty. Indeed, it said that any research into the composition of juries would be illegal, under the Contempt of Court Act, in which case it could neither confirm nor deny these anecdotal stories. "Jury summonsing officers are very stringent," the department said. "There has to be a jolly good reason to be excused." Such as? "Oh, a holiday booked in advance, or a hospital appointment".

Now, most people would know how to fake a holiday or a hospital appointment. And the list of people who are permitted to refuse is curious. Why should vets, chemists or dentists expect an exemption? As self-employed businesses they would stand to lose a lot of money and that is the reason that seems to lie behind a great many of the middle classes weaseling out - a pretty poor reason. Jury service should be made virtually impossible to avoid, with a three-line whip on every household, however rich.

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