What the juror saw

When Richard Davies was called for jury service, he was only too glad to perform his civic duty. But after two weeks in court, he believes a radical shake-up of the system is needed
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The Independent Online

Despite dire warnings from friends about their experience of jury service, I set off for my first morning at court last month with some excitement. In the week before, the Government had announced its plans to make it harder for middle-class people to avoid jury service, in the belief that this will result in fewer acquittals. As someone who has experienced more than his fair share of burglaries and car break-ins, this seemed highly sensible. It also made me feel vindicated in actually wanting to perform my civic duty.

Despite dire warnings from friends about their experience of jury service, I set off for my first morning at court last month with some excitement. In the week before, the Government had announced its plans to make it harder for middle-class people to avoid jury service, in the belief that this will result in fewer acquittals. As someone who has experienced more than his fair share of burglaries and car break-ins, this seemed highly sensible. It also made me feel vindicated in actually wanting to perform my civic duty.

But my enthusiasm did not last long. After a fortnight stint, I concluded that my cynical friends were right after all; it is a shambles. If the stated aim of the Government's reform is to put the victim at the heart of the criminal justice system, there is clearly a very long way to go. And jurors come way down the pecking order.

Taking two weeks' leave from work is for me, like most people, a big commitment. It requires several weeks planning beforehand and much catching up afterwards. The least you might expect as a juror is some recognition of the personal sacrifice you have made. You must be joking.

On the contrary, jury service is modelled on 1950s-style National Service – think "Get some in!" On arrival, my co-jurors and I were treated like the latest batch of recruits to go through basic training (a video) before being sent as cannon fodder to the front line. The court clerks, who are the "non-commissioned officers", instruct you in how to behave in front of your "commanding officer", the judge. Grave warnings are issued about contempt of court, which could result in you being fined or ending up in the "glass house" yourself.

Being "on service" proved anything but active. Out of 10 days, I spent four waiting around until lunchtime before anything happened and on another four was not required to attend at all. On such days, it is expected that you return to work. A frequent complaint amongst fellow jurors is how hard it is to use this time productively if you had planned to be absent. It is also a poor deal for employers, who are expected to pick up the tab for this dead time. As it is, employers are expected to subsidise jury members for anything over the maximum loss of earnings allowance of £52.63 per day, which applies to anyone earning more than 20 grand a year.

The long, unexplained waiting periods are, however, very effective in preparing you for the tedium of hearing evidence. No matter how mind-numbing, you at least feel grateful for having something to do.

Sadly, my cases were anything but "juicy". One was a familiar tale of a Friday-night street brawl in which a sucker punch had led to a charge of GBH. But in the time taken to come to court, the victim had long ago recovered from his injuries. The prosecution barrister exhausted himself trying to expose inconsistencies in the defendant's police statement, which, painfully obvious to the jury, amounted to nothing more than his inability to express himself in standard English. The counsel's pompous and condescending manner only served to increase sympathy for the defendant.

Another case came under the new offence of "racially aggravated" threatening behaviour. Both victim and defendant were from ethnic minorities and, again, struggled to make themselves understood or to understand anything said to them. Throughout her cross-examination, the defence barrister repeatedly addressed the victim by her client's name, as if one difficult-to-pronounce surname was all she could cope with. Neither the victim nor the judge appeared to notice or care. Indeed, the roles of defendant and victim could easily have been reversed. It was simply a matter of who had called the police first. Although they clearly disliked each other intensely, there was no reason to believe that this was because of race.

In neither case was any substantial evidence presented, nor were there any independent witnesses. Our decision to convict or acquit was based on our subjective assessments of whether we preferred to believe the victim or the accused.

The bad news for the Government is that I saw no evidence to suggest that middle-class jury members were more likely to convict. If anything, they are more critical of sloppy preparation by the Crown Prosecution Service.

I also think juries would benefit from proper guidance about what to do if they do not reach a unanimous verdict. But the one thing that all were agreed upon was that neither case we tried justified three days of court time at a cost of £8,000 per day, or the 36 days of lost manpower for our employers.

My own professional background is in public relations. During the many idle moments, I found myself thinking how the experience of jury service could be improved. Had there been a suggestion box at the court, this is what I would have put in it.

Firstly, the courts service should dispense with the military-service model and adopt a customer-service model. If the public are the ultimate customers of criminal justice, then surely the jury are its representatives in court? So, rather than the court being upstanding for the judge, shouldn't the judge, as a public servant, be upstanding for the jury?

Following this theme, couldn't the judge be a bit more visible outside the courtroom? He could welcome the jury members on their first day. Instead of retiring to his private chambers for lunch, he could eat in the same canteen as everyone else. It may have passed judges by, but the days of separate dining rooms for managers and workers are long gone in the private sector. When juries are discharged, he could invite them for tea to thank them for their efforts, perhaps followed by a letter on some nicely embossed paper.

As for all the wasted time, couldn't the courts invest in a paging system, so that at least we could go and do some shopping? Slightly more radical, if it's not possible to keep trivial cases out of the crown courts altogether, why not introduce a "one-day trial" in which there are strict time limits for cross examination? My observation is that many barristers would benefit from such a discipline. And finally, must they wear those ridiculous wigs and gowns? I'm sorry, but they don't impress anyone, least of all the defendants, who in most cases have seen it all too many times before.

In reality, I can't see any of this happening. The current White Paper describes the need to "show jurors... that the system works efficiently, and that their time and contribution is both valued and used effectively". But the reforms do not go anywhere near far enough. The plan to remove exemptions from jury service and compel the middle classes to serve will only get people's backs up and further undermine confidence in this last bastion of the deferential society. The Lord Chancellor has proven himself capable of spending a fortune on wallpaper. Why not now invest in a complete makeover?