October 10 1999
10 Forsythia Grove
CORSETTSHIRE ZY6 4GT
I have, just recently, returned from a stint of jury service over at Corsettshire Crown Court. And I have not been able to stop thinking about it.
The building itself resembled one of those impregnable-looking, concrete bunkers – most unlike, I must say, the rather gracious buildings one sees as settings for television court dramas. There was one way in and one way out. One, quite naturally, had one’s bag – and person – searched upon each entrance to the building – the search being for weapons such as knives and glass bottles. The interior of the building was ugly and largely windowless; only one of the courts I entered had a window and, even then, blinds excluded the sky.
But what has impelled me to write today’s account is the (strongly-felt) need to make some comment on matters of public interest.
I sat as a juror on two trials. The first was impeccably conducted by what appeared to be a first-class judge and, in particular, a first-class prosecuting barrister. These individuals spoke with both clarity, and courtesy, to the jury – and looked us in the eye. I was very impressed with the quality of the performance of I saw and observed. It functioned as a ‘bench mark’ in my eyes.
The second trial, however, was not like that. And it seemed to me (for this is my account and I am endeavouring to be fair and accurate) that the barristers did not acquit themselves with quite the same quality as those in the first trial I had seen. It wasn’t just that the questioning of the witnesses did not seem complete and cogent. They also did not address themselves to the jury with the same quality of etiquette observed in the first trial. I am not going to say what this trial was about, but the quality of police evidence also did not seem impeccable. I will give an example of this. In this particular situation, there was an (after dark) scene of crime. I feel that the jury should have been presented with a diagram (complete with measurements of distance) of the scene of crime. I also feel that after dark photos of the scene of crime – taken at the time of the incident – should also have been shown to us. As it was, we were shown daylight shots quite some considerable time after the defendant’s arrest at the scene.
In case anyone is thinking that, as lay people, members of the jury are not qualified to have opinions on the above, I would like to assert that we are assumed competent to decide, on the basis of the evidence that we hear, whether, or not, a defendant has been proven guilty – or not guilty – of the charges read out in court. And this is a complex matter requiring a significant capacity to process, and to come to logical conclusions about, large quantities of information.
I have found myself pondering these matters since my sojourn as a juror. I have wondered to what extent I can speak/write about them. And to this end I have studied a summary of The Contempt of Court Act (1981).
It transpires that, for contempt to exist, ‘there needs to be a publication (speech or writing) in relation to proceedings which are active which creates a substantial risk that the course of justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.’ The summary of the Act then went on to say that ‘criminal proceedings cease to become active when there is: an acquittal/sentence or any other verdict/finding/decision which puts an end to the proceedings.’ A judgment.
This is a proper definition because – were the above not to be the case – there would, in my view, be a serious conflict between the need for appropriate secrecy and the right to free speech in matters of public interest.
I would also like to comment on the scope and limitations of the juror role. Jurors spend (usually) up to a total of ten days serving at a crown court. When we arrive on our first day, the situation is both novel and strange; we have both to get used to the ritual of proceedings and to each other. Jurors therefore naturally undergo a rapid and steep learning curve.
In an ideal situation – where a trial is conducted in the most complete and most capable manner – the jury is, indeed, able to sit as twelve silent, passive, sponges (absorbing the evidence). However, it can arise that a juror sits in court wondering if s/he can ask a question (as, indeed, they sometimes can in some US courts). It is, of course, possible to hand a note to the court usher/clerk with a question upon it. However, I did not feel that the jury was encouraged in the belief that they really had a way of asking apparently pertinent questions, e.g. ‘can we be shown the arresting officer’s written statement.’ I felt disempowered and that an essential function of the jury – to ask, and have answered, questions which strengthen the overall probity of the evidence – was nullified.
In fact, I felt sufficiently uneasy on this point to do an internet search on the subject of ‘jury passivity’ – only to discover that quite a large amount has been written on the subject!
I would like to suggest that jurors are encouraged to ask questions which clarify the evidence at the time that evidence is being heard. And also that the jury is convened to discuss evidence heard so far, at the end of every working day. It is too late to do this at the very end of the trial! Juries have a lot to think about and we need to feel that our (relevant) questions have been solicited as we go along. It is all too easy to feel suppressed into not asking these questions . . .
My final thought is that jurors should be asked – as a matter of course – to fill out feedback forms about their in-court experience. I did ask, in the jury deliberation room, whether or not anybody had seen such forms, and somebody said that they had. However, in practice, I left at the end of the trial and neither saw such a form nor filled one out. And, even if I had, I would have felt reluctant to express thoughts such as this and give them back to the court system. I may be wrong but I did not feel that members of the judiciary would want to hear.
Yours, in thoughtful mode,