Deaf people may get seat on juries

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The Independent Online
PLANS TO allow immigrants and deaf people to take part in jury service are being considered by the Government.

Research, commissioned by the Home Office, will establish how the law can be changed so that interpreters and "signers" are permitted to sit with juries to assist jurors who are deaf or whose first language is not English, a move that would require a change in the law. Under current legislation only the 12 members of the jury can be present during its deliberations. This is so the jury remains "untainted" by any outside influence.

To qualify for jury service a person needs to have resided in Britain for five years and be on the electoral roll. Nick Chatwin, the legal director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, likened the planned change to the opening up the police force to a wider community. "It would help to show that the justice system is more transparent and open to more people and seen to be open to more people," he said.

He said the sort of people who might benefit from any change would be married Asian women immigrants who have not learnt spoken English.

At the same time it is estimated that as many as 120,000 profoundly deaf people are barred from serving on juries. Martin Boggard, a profoundly deaf man from Ilford in Essex, nearly succeeded in his efforts to sit as a juror in 1991.

After attending court with his signer, Mr Boggard was offered an "excusal" by the jury bailiff, which he refused. He was later selected for two trials but was "challenged" on both occasions by the barristers on either side, even though he said he would use lip reading and writing paper to communicate with his fellow jurors.

There is no legal statute which explicitly bars interpreters or signers from the jury room. They are both used in open court to help witnesses with evidence. It is the common law rules on jury deliberation which excludes third parties.

The Labour MP Tom Levitt, a trustee of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, said there have been a number of cases where deaf people had been refused jury service.

"One in every thousand people in this country has sign language as their first or only functional language. I can see no reason why these people should be excluded from jury service," he said.

Answering Mr Levitt's question on the issue this week, Paul Boateng, the Home Office minister, said: "The review of the law which prohibits non-jurors from being present during jurydeliberations raises issues both of principle and practicality." He said the Home Office would carry out research next month "into the composition of juries and the reasons for jury excusals, including deafness".

James Strachan, the chief executive of the RNID, urged the Government to complete its review quickly.

Mr Strachan said: "I find it ridiculous that I can be a chief executive and sit on a Government taskforce and run a multi-million pound business but am unable to serve on a jury."