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What is jury service really like?

18 May 2015 ( 07 April 2021 )

Ever wondered what really happens in court? Been called for jury service and not sure what to expect? A juror shares their experiences.

Lady justice
What is it really like to be on a jury?

Anyone on the electoral roll aged 18-70 can be summoned for jury service. It’s a civic obligation. But what’s it actually like being in one of 12 good men and true in Crown court?

The first indication of the equality of all before the law is when I step through the doors of the court building. Jurymen and women, witnesses, defendants, barristers – we all turn out our pockets for the security team, placing mobile phones, keys, cash, etc, into plastic containers.

I then step through the metal detector gate, triggering beeps and red lights. It’s the chewing gum packet. It always is.

I present my photo ID, an ancient provisional driving licence. It passes muster, and then it’s through the 18th century corridors and up the steps to the second floor and the jury waiting room.

The jury is selected

It’s 9.15am and 30 potential jurors are gathered to serve for the next two weeks and maybe beyond.

We’ve already received a thorough whys-and-wherefores guide from HM Courts and Tribunals Service but undergo a detailed induction, including video presentation, anyway.

The Jury & Usher Manager explains the jury selection process – 18 names are picked at random and of those, 12 will be chosen to serve on a trial. We are advised on expenses claims and that during lunchbreaks we should not sit on the benches outside court as defendants tend to use them.

We are reminded (not for the last time) that we are not to discuss the case with anyone outside the court. This is not for reasons of confidentiality, after all the public gallery is open to all. It is to ensure that we are not influenced by outside opinion.

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Entering the court

Induction over, the first 18 are called at 10.30am. My name is first. We are head-counted by a young male usher (amazing how a simple black gown lends authority) and led in silence to the back of the court.

The main protagonists are in situ – bewigged judge, counsel, one Crown Prosecution Service and one each for the two defendants who already seated in the glass-walled dock. A court clerk sits in front of the judge, stenographer to her left.

Again, my name is called first. Coincidence, I hope. I enter the compact jury box. Two rows of six fold-down seats. We are sworn in one by one, six men, six women (again, random, at least 10 are of ‘Saga age’). This is the only time any of us will speak in court, until the yet-to-be elected foreman delivers the verdict.

We are given the indictments against the accused, like all subsequent documents to be shared one between two jurors.

Opening remarks

The trial begins immediately with the CPS counsel’s opening remarks. This is a harrowing case. From the start, we must put aside all considerations of the defendants’ and witnesses appearance and demeanour. The case is to be judged solely on evidence. It is the prosecution that must determine the defendants’ guilt, not the defence to prove their innocence.

The judge has put us at our ease and takes time to explain the process to the jury throughout the trial. The proceedings have a natural pace to them.

Cross-examination of witnesses is gentle rather than aggressively confrontational, certainly by what we imagine from TV courtroom drama. If this is typical then courtroom coverage is not the TV ‘natural’ you might imagine it to be. It is methodical; it is procedural; it is interrupted by judicial points of law where the jury retires to the deliberating room.

We can take notes but they remain in court throughout the trial until the jury retires to consider its verdict. The court day ends, for the jury, at 4pm. We exit through the deliberation room, no-one offering an opinion on case.

We return the next day and for the next seven working days the trial follows a pattern of courteous, rational cross-examination of witnesses and defendants alike. There are no ‘I object!’s, no raised voices from counsel. Questions are often put in rhetorical form, ‘did you not’, etc. Nothing is rushed.

At the start, the usher suggests that we could well be ready to deliberate over the case within nine days. Even with one day’s adjournment while the judge attends to other cases, we find ourselves well ahead and suddenly the CPS and defence counsels are making their final statements to the jury. If there is any time in the case that there is any dramatic flourish, then this is it. The judge then sums up the evidence of the past six and a half days.

Deliberations begin

We are directed to the deliberation room to try to reach a verdict. The usher takes our mobile phones from us.

Fortunately we are unanimous in our choice of jury foreman, who must lead the discussion and stand in court to deliver our verdict.

We are not allowed to leave the room until the day’s end. We are unable to reach a decision.

The next day we arrive with bags of sweets, pretzels, sandwiches, in case of a long haul. What goes on in the deliberation room remains strictly confidential among the 12 jurors. Even after a verdict is delivered we cannot reveal what went on.

Reaching a verdict

After an afternoon and half a morning’s deliberations we inform the judge that we cannot reach a unanimous verdict. We re-enter the courtroom where the judge says she will now accept 10-2 majority verdicts. We return to the deliberation room.

By early afternoon we can reach a verdict on one charge only. The judge summons us back to the courtroom. The foreman gives our verdict. As we have been unable to reach a verdict on the other 15 charges, the judge directs the CPS to consult as to whether they wish to have a retrial.

The jury is dismissed

The jury is thanked by the judge and we are dismissed not from just this case but, as there are no other trials pending within a realistic timeframe, from service altogether.

We return to the deliberation room to be escorted from the court building by the usher. All our notes are piled in the middle of the room to be bagged up and destroyed. We’re asked just to tear our notes’ pages from the spiral notebook so the books can be used again. Economies everywhere.

We make our brief farewells to our fellow jurors - ‘It’s been a pleasure’. And despite the nature of the case, it has been.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.