Discover more from Fragmentary
Reflections on being a juror
A remarkable thing
The first and most obvious thing is the sheer amount of sitting around you do. You get there and the court isn’t ready for you (because it’s doing court things: legal wrangling and necessary prep). Then a few minutes after you finally get in to the room and hear some evidence, the court breaks for lunch because while you’ve been having enforced brunch since 9am they have of course been doing actual stuff and they need a moment. Then you go back in and there’s a lot of repetition because this isn’t the top case at the Old Bailey and the barristers haven’t been working on their cases for seven months and preparing in the mirror all week, they have a load of these and a bunch more just landed on them because somebody is ill or has decided they’d rather not be a criminal barrister any more, which in the present climate is understandable. Whatever. There is MUCH waiting, and of all things I missed my standing desk, where I am even now standing and typing. What an opportunity for a state - a captive audience who could be encouraged to learn about civics. Or Pilates. Or Farsi. Or…
Second, the court ushers and the boiler room team of the UK justice system are really nice. They’re good people and they do what they can even when you’re a doofus who can’t find just one item in his wardrobe which does not set off the metal detectors EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
It appears I have ferrous-aspected fashion sense. I did not know that.
What would have been great is a map of food places near the courthouse. I went to the supermarket for the first week and I’m reminded of how awful supermarket sandwiches tend to be. I had hopes of a proper sandwich counter somewhere - granary baps! Crispy chicken and mayo, maybe some sriracha? - but no. So I just ate fruit and nuts and drank mint tea. It was like a cleanse. Had I known I was within a five minute walk of one of the best Pakistani cafes in London, and maybe six minutes from one of the city’s best Afghani cafes, I’d have had a lot more culinary fun. (Another thing I did not know: “Pakistan” is an acronym coined in 1933.) Anyway: do some searches beforehand, because meals become a major part of your day. How would better food affect juries? It’s an actual question.
Which brings me to randomness. Jurors in England are randomly selected from the eligible population, then randomly selected for a given panel and finally randomly selected from the panel to make twelve. I sat on two juries and both were relatively diverse, though not (obviously) perfectly representative. The mood was somber, sensible, and conscious of obligation. This wasn’t Twelve Angry Men. No one suggested we draw out a trial to avoid having to serve on another jury (jury service notionally lasts two weeks) or that we hurry the verdict so we could get lunch or go home early. When my late mother served on a jury she apparently had to deal with a lot of “well, you can just see he’s guilty, can’t you?” Maybe things have moved on.
The other thing was that we took care of each other. Juries can have to deal with some pretty grim stuff - my second case was a Grievous Bodily Harm trial, and the scenario was bleak as hell: an apparently motiveless act of violence. I found that one hard. Coming in after the weekend, the judge abjured us to put other concerns from our minds and focus on the case. The issue for me was the inverse: I hadn’t thought of much else since the Friday. In the room - which I can’t tell you any specifics about - there has to be an awareness of everyone’s fragility, and there was. On the one hand it’s critical that all members of the jury feel able to share their opinions freely. On the other you have to achieve unanimity. The legal system describes itself as adversarial, but inside the room it needs to be collegial so that the people who ordinarily might not speak up in a group can give the benefit of their presence and understanding. Pick your foreperson wisely: someone with structure and confidence, but also humility. After all the waiting around, finally you’re there, deliberating. You’re sharing both a potentially traumatic detailing of an ugly event and the responsibility to determine guilt or its absence. What will that shake loose in you, in someone else? You can’t know until it happens. When we were done, we didn’t quite hug, but we did make sure everyone was okay. There are experts you can talk to if you need to, but it seems to me that the first line is the jury itself. We looked to each other after the verdict was given to make sure no one was drowning; honestly it was the most powerful spontaneous community I’ve seen for a long time.
Then came an odd severance: we were in the pool once more. There’s no guarantee you’ll ever see the other jurors again, but you might also find yourself empanelled with them the next day. There’s no format for exchanging details, and perhaps that’s for the best. The relationship is intentionally temporary and specific, within what is effectively a sacred ephemeral space, a rite of justice. (Almost all the jurors in my pool chose to affirm rather than swear on a holy book, incidentally, which surprised me but shouldn’t have.)
Having done our job, we melted away, leaving the court behind. I won’t miss it, but it was impressive, and there are people I will always be glad to see if I spot them in the street.
Unexpected sobriety and seriousness. Don’t get used to it, I’m already embarrassed.