Ban on profoundly deaf jurors upheld by court

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A ban on profoundly deaf people serving as jurors was upheld by the courts yesterday in a ruling that contrasts sharply with the Government's efforts to reform the law.

A ban on profoundly deaf people serving as jurors was upheld by the courts yesterday in a ruling that contrasts sharply with the Government's efforts to reform the law.

In a landmark hearing, Jeff McWhinney, 39, chief executive of the British Deaf Association, was told that a 13th person - in this case a sign language interpreter - could not be present in a jury room during deliberations.

Judge Shirley Anwyl, resident judge at Woolwich Crown Court, south London, said the presence of an interpreter would amount to an incurable irregularity, and that without such a person Mr McWhinney would not be able to contribute properly to the deliberations.

But the Government is already taking steps to give interpreters and signers access to the jury room. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, first committed the Government to changing the law in February, and the Home Office is researching the subject.

Mr McWhinney's case first came to the courts' attention in April. He was summoned to do jury service at Woolwich Crown Court, but then the court staff informed him that he was being automatically excused.

There is no statute explicitly barring 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 that exclude third parties, although in many American states the law has already changed to allow interpreters to enter the jury room.

Judge Anwyl said: "My understanding of the law is that there is no law which permits either me or any other judge of the Crown Court to authorise the attendance of a 13th person in the jury room." She added that without the help of an interpreter Mr McWhinney was "incapable of effectively carrying out his function as a juror".

But she said the experience of American courts, which found the presence of deaf people on juries "far from being a hindrance", tended to contradict arguments that such individuals would be prevented by their disability from following evidence and fulfilling their role in deliberations. In her opinion, deaf people could follow "vocal nuances" of witnesses through an interpreter's mannerisms.

Mr McWhinney's lawyer, Douglas Silas, of the London lawyers David Levene and Partners, said all that was required to change the law was guidance issued by the Lord Chancellor's Department. Mr Silas explained: "As the law stands, a 'stranger' is not permitted to enter the jury room. But if the Lord Chancellor were to say that interpreters should not be considered 'strangers', then they would be able to sit with the jury."

Mr Silas, an adviser to the British Deaf Association, said that this was as positive a judgment as he could have hoped for - short of the judge finding in his client's favour.