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Law: Not fit for jury service

Deaf people can't serve on juries because their interpreters are `strangers'. But that could soon change.

Dan Hayes
Tuesday 21 December 1999 00:02 GMT

THE CASE of Jeff McWhinney - who was prevented from sitting on a jury as he is profoundly deaf - has highlighted ongoing problems experienced by disabled people in their dealings with the legal system. McWhinney, chief executive of the British Deaf Association, was told by Judge Shirley Anwyl at Woolwich Crown Court that the presence of his sign language interpreter in the jury room would amount to an incurable irregularity.

The episode has caused considerable anger in the disabled community. James Strachan, chief executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), who is himself profoundly deaf, says: "The ruling demonstrates the need for a fundamental review of this outdated piece of law. I find it ridiculous that I can be a chief executive, sit on a government task force and run a multi-million pound business, but am unable to serve on a jury."

But the case may have lit the touch-paper for change. Douglas Silas, McWhinney's solicitor, says: "I find this a very positive judgment. The judge was extremely sympathetic to the cause which McWhinney is trying to further. We've quashed the idea a deaf person can't serve because of their impairment but the judge didn't have the authority to allow a `stranger' - McWhinney's interpreter - into the jury room. Courts have never considered this issue before, so there's no definition of what a `stranger' is."

Silas is hopeful this question, and the whole issue of deaf people serving on juries, will be addressed in parliament in the near future. Jeremy Hooper, chairman of the Law Society Group for Solicitors with Disabilities, adds: "The Prime Minister's said the Lord Chancellor is going to undertake a review. It is very important that it looks at all the issues. It is an issue that has been running for some time. It needs definition. We need guidelines on what the process is. At the moment deaf people are being called up, saying on the form they have a disability, and then being excluded. In the US, where deaf jurors have been allowed into court with their interpreters, it has worked very well. There is no reason it can't work here."

Agnes Fletcher, parliamentary officer at Radar (the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation), has mixed feelings: "I think the Court Service is making a considerable effort to improve the situation. It has brought forward a number of initiatives in the past year, but there is still a very long way to go," she says. On the plus side, "The service has carried out an audit of all its facilities to see how they rate in terms of physical access."

As to jury service, Fletcher says: "Many disabled people actually want to be able to do their civic duty. I think it is one part of a range of aspects of access to the sort of thing other people don't even think about. It is part of a very basic feeling that says that you are an ordinary, valued member of society, and that, as such, there are things that you may be expected to do.

"There are reasons why people may or may not be suitable for a particular case or to be a juror, but a blanket ban seems unfair. What you are looking at in a jury is a random selection of your peers, and to exclude any group of individuals seems to go against that philosophy."

But there may still be logical legal reasons why it may be difficult for deaf people to serve on juries. Jessica Learmond-Criqui, a partner in London law firm Fladgate Fielder, says: "The deaf person would be very dependent on their interpreter. If the interpreter interspersed their opinion, the deaf person would be none the wiser. It's unfortunate that voice recognition technology has not been sufficiently developed to give us a working system yet."

But James Strachan is not convinced. "Far from weakening the foundations of a trial, allowing deaf people to be jurors may strengthen the basis for a jury's decision. Deaf people are of necessity expert at reading facial expressions and body language, which adds another dimension to the jury's examination of the evidence."

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