Last week and the week before, I was on jury service. That was the big secret I couldn’t tell anyone about. In this country jury service is viewed as both an obligation and a privilege. It is also looked upon as a burden and that, I must admit, it was.
In order to qualify for jury service in the UK you have to be a person with no criminal record who is over 18 and under 70. Apart from that, anyone is fair game and jurors are chosen randomly to attend their local Crown Court for at least a two week period.
Everyone worries about what they will do if they are selected to be on a jury panel but the reality is that a lot of cases don’t actually come to trial at all. Sometimes the defendant changes his or her plea to guilty before the trial and sometimes the case is dropped by the Crown (prosecution). There is a lot of waiting about and so a good book and/or lively company are essential. I was very fortunate in that my fellow jurors were lively, interesting and as fascinated by our legal system in action as I was. That said, there were a few very long fruitless days when we all found ourselves resorting to the plethora of daft celebrity magazines that had been provided for our entertainment. Somehow the lives of over-privileged royals, pouting ‘glamour’ models, reality ‘stars’ and rash inducing pop Svengali’s seemed even more ridiculous in the context of an anodyne Crown Court jury suite.
But one way or another we all had our day/s in court and everyone I was on service with got to see our adversarial legal system in its full bewigged and ‘your Honour’ peppered panoply. That may sound flippant but it isn’t. Our system is very flawed – the cases I was asked to adjudicate related to incidents that had happened at the beginning of 2011. It’s slow and unwieldy and expensive. But the system of trial by judge AND jury is a good one. The judge gives the jury legal direction and the Crown and Defence barristers interrogate the case. But 12 brains have to decide upon innocence or guilt of the defendant and it is incumbent upon the Crown to convince the jury of this. In other words the defendant is innocent until proved guilty.
Jury service makes you think. Cases I was on the jury panel for didn’t involve serious offences like murder or rape, but adjudicating them did require us to decide whether or not a person will be marked by the taint of having a criminal record. They also involved the notion of delivering a verdict based simply on facts and facts alone. Not an easy task by any means and one that prompted much discussion and some disagreement. Avoiding speculation is a difficult thing to do but it is something you HAVE to do if you are on a jury panel.
Clearly I cannot tell you about the actual cases that I was involved with. But I can tell you about the impression they have left on me. I live in a part of the UK that is very beautiful, a bit wild and is near three large northern English cities. We have areas of fantastic wealth and commercial success but we also have vast areas that are characterised by urban blight and poverty. Some parts of some northern towns and cities look as if they’ve been bombed. They haven’t, they’ve just been left to fall apart. This has happened for all sorts of reasons but it is not being helped by the recession our government still claim isn’t a recession.
The upshot is that we have a large number of people, both young and old, who cannot find work and who are ‘told’ by the media every single day that there is no hope. On the one hand ‘there is no hope’ of getting a job while at the same time the government are cutting welfare benefits to the sick and unemployed. So a lot of people are caught between the rock of unemployment and the hard place of reduced welfare benefits. It’s not a nice place to be especially in view of a statement made by the Mayor of London a few days ago about our young people having to lower their aspirations with regard to their career ambitions. This from a man who lives in luxury and whose own children are doing very nicely thank you very much. ‘Unhelpful’ doesn’t begin to cover it.
The offences I was required to adjudicate were crimes that involved cheap alcohol and the inflation of small sleights that come about when people have nothing but their most basic survival instincts to engage their brains. Although there was only one person in all these cases who actually performed the criminal act at question, there were very few people who were not victims in that court room. Caught in cycles of hopelessness and sometimes addiction that they couldn’t control, they lashed out. In their shoes, with a gut full of vodka, I’d probably do the same. So I’ve done my duty, I’ve done it to the best of my ability but I’m left with a sadness that will take some time to go. At one point in my life I used to wish that I’d studied for the law rather than take a degree in psychology. Now I’m not so sure.