Tuesday, 4 March 2014

In the interests of justice

Something I read recently – and just what it was has now gone clean out of my mind – reminded me of the time I spent sitting on a jury.  Not a talent show jury, all though there was one occasion many years ago when I was one of the carnival queen selection committee, which was a jury of sorts.  No, I am talking about a real court room jury, the sort of thing we used to see on the Perry Mason show.  Although perhaps not quite like that, as the jury I sat on was an English one rather than American.  As my experience was way back – getting on for four years ago – it’s probably not out of order for me to talk about it.  Or write about it, for that matter.  I don’t think that I am at all likely to end up in jail for contempt of court after this long.  Mind you, at the time we were warned very sternly not to discuss the case outside the jury room on pain of…  Well, what it would have been in pain of was never exactly spelled out, but we instinctively knew that whatever it was, it would have been unpleasant.

Our English system of justice is still based on the Magna Carta that King John was forced to sign nearly 700 years ago.  It is because of that “great charter” that anybody accused of a crime is entitled to be judged by his peers as represented by a jury of twelve “good men and true”, although of course in this day and age that includes women as well as men.

So it came to pass that I received a letter instructing me to report at the court on a stated day.  I duly turned up at the appointed time and after going through the security checks, waited in a collecting area with the other 20 or so who had also been called for duty.  We were duly led backstage (as it were) and given the introductory talk before being deposited in the waiting room to, well, wait.  We had been advised to bring reading material as there would be delays, sometimes quite lengthy.  Eventually, probably only about mid-morning but it seemed much later, fifteen of us were led into court.  Only twelve were needed but there were three “spares” in case somebody had personal knowledge of either the case or the defendant.  All went smoothly, and I was one of the chosen.

We took our places in the jury box, noticing that in front of each of us was a pencil and a few loose sheets of paper, these obviously having been torn from a spiral-bound notepad, and were addressed by the judge before the trial started.  There were three defendants, two men and one woman, each of them facing a charge of affray and one a further charge of causing bodily harm.  I no longer remember the details of the charges but do know that incidents had occurred at three different pubs in the villages of Pevensey and Westham, in the main street of the village of Pevensey, and that somebody had been attacked as he walked through the grounds of Pevensey Castle.  As we listened to the various witnesses, we members of the jury took notes.  Some were detailed, some fairly scrappy – and some completely non-existent.

There did seem to be an awful lot of times when the jury was sent back to our room while legal points were raised with the judge (mostly, I suspect, by one of the three defending counsel) and we started quite late – 10.00am – and finished early – usually by about 4.30 – so although the jury really needed to pay attention during the questioning of witnesses, this didn’t require the full effort for too long at a stretch.

The case had, we were told at the start, been scheduled to last a week but it was only on day four that the jury retired to consider its verdict.  As we sat around the table, it quickly became obvious that some of us who had not taken extensive notes were unable to recall things said by certain witnesses, things that other members of the jury considered significant.  Even those who had taken copious notes disagreed about some details!  After some time, we had all agreed that all three defendants were guilty of affray, but there was one juror who could not agree that the prosecution had proved one defendant guilty of causing bodily harm.  He conceded that it was likely, even probable, that the defendant was indeed guilty but considered that the evidence was too circumstantial for guilt to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt”.  However, we were in the end able to agree a verdict of guilty.

After the forewoman had pronounced the verdict we learned that the one accused and found guilty of causing bodily harm was already subject to a suspended prison sentence for causing bodily harm.  I, at least, felt that this added justification to our verdict, not that such justification was needed.

And so my jury service ended after just a week.  It was an interesting experience, although not one I particularly wish to repeat.  The best part was that I discovered a sandwich bar close to the court where they sold the most delicious bacon sandwiches!

I have been on record as saying that I believe the English system of justice to be the best in the world – not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with the system in many, if not most, other countries.  All the same, there are difficulties that could be addressed, even if some improvements could only be made if money were no object.  But maybe I’ll get to that another day.


joeh said...

Sounds much like my experience in the US courts. Funny how people interpret "Reasonable doubt."

Many think it means "beyond any shadow of doubt."

Jenny Woolf said...

I've done jury service twice. Both times it was yobs in boozers thumping each other. I felt it was a serious, major waste of time and money. Can't these judges and barristers find anything else to do? let alone the wretched jurors who might be missing their children's birthday parties or other impportant events!