At the end of March this year I stepped down from the board of Young Citizens after eleven years, five of which as Chair. By a quirk of timing, that same month I was summoned to do jury service – one of the most valuable ways in which citizens can be actively involved in our democratic society.
I have always wanted to play my part as a juror. I’ve spent so much time in my role with Young Citizens talking about the importance of the law and promoting and attending our brilliant schools , that I was genuinely excited to receive the summons and actually walk the walk.
I was not disappointed. It was one of the most fascinating, stimulating, troubling, emotional and ultimately satisfying things I’ve ever done. Sorry if that sounds over the top, but it’s true.
Before we got into any of that though, I spent the first three days reading a book and chatting to other jurors in a large waiting room. With many trials taking place simultaneously in a busy Crown Court, the staff cannot be sure when one trial will end and a new one will start. So inevitably there’s a lot of hanging around.
Eventually, I was called and we were warned that our trial could be a long one – up to four weeks. This was fine for me (I’m retired) but for others it was a real problem, so some could leave and ‘substitutes’ called. This is part of the reason why courts must summon more jurors than they may need – it’s impossible to know how many substitutes may be required.
We were warned that the case was a complicated one – hence lasting longer than most. It involved a number of serious robberies. There were five defendants facing a total of seven charges between them. With all the permutations, we had to reach no fewer than fourteen separate verdicts. It really was a complicated case!
Because of the time I’ve spent with Young Citizens, the courtroom set-up felt familiar. The judge was extremely considerate and supportive of us. However, the first time I looked properly at the five defendants in the dock I felt the full weight of the responsibility we were being asked to take.
The judge reminded us that he was ‘only’ the judge of the law, and that while he would advise us on the application of the law the real decisions (guilty or not guilty) fell to us. He also reminded us (many times) that we should find a defendant guilty only if we were ‘sure’. He also emphasised that it is the job of the prosecution to prove guilt; the defence does not have to prove innocence.
The prosecution case hinged on a huge amount of detailed technical evidence drawn from CCTV, from records of mobile phone calls and messages (both who contacted whom, and the location of the phones when they were used) and from automatic number plate recognition systems.
A mountain of call logs, graphics, maps, expert witness statements and more piled up on our desks as the trial progressed.
I was genuinely astonished at the amount of forensic work the detectives and the prosecution had put into building the case. The crimes had been committed three years earlier, and it had taken most of that time to put the case together.
I was also hugely impressed by the work put in the barristers – both prosecution and defence – and by their extraordinary skill in presenting evidence and questioning and cross-examining witnesses.
One of the hardest aspects of being a juror is that good barristers will present their cases so well, so passionately and so convincingly that one can feel totally convinced by, say, the prosecution barrister and then a few minutes later completely swayed in the other direction by the defence.
As the judge reminded us, this is why we have to refer back constantly to the evidence – not allowing our feelings, suspicions or even a brilliant speech make up our minds for us.
After more than three weeks hearing evidence, we were sent to our retiring room to reach our verdicts, with a very helpful briefing from the judge to help guide our ‘routes to verdict’ and reminding us of key points of law.
I was elected foreperson of the jury, which means I had to chair the discussions and try to help us reach unanimous verdicts. I was very lucky to have a fantastic group of fellow jurors who all took their roles as seriously as I did, and were committed to doing a difficult job to the very best of their abilities.
The twelve of us were in our little room for a total of 14 hours (not all in one session!). This was a very difficult and, at times, emotional process as we knew that guilty verdicts would almost certainly see some people sent to prison for a long time.
But we did our job – referring constantly to our evidence and reminding ourselves that we needed to be ‘sure’. The judge’s words were ringing in our ears: “If you’re not sure, you must acquit.”
I’m not allowed (rightly) to say anything about our deliberations except that by the end we believed that we had arrived at sound, evidence-based verdicts.
As foreperson, I had to stand up in court and answer ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ to all fourteen charges.
For me, this was the hardest aspect of the entire process. While I gave good news to some defendants my ‘guilty’ announcements for others were far from welcome. I had a lump in my throat, but I was sure we had reached the right decisions.
At the end, we all felt drained and very emotional.
Yet the experience was hugely important for all of us jurors. We bonded as a team and I was so impressed at the way everyone took their role with such seriousness and thoughtfulness. Some of us even kept in touch after the trial, such was the power of the shared experience.
I won’t pretend it was easy, because it wasn’t. It was hard work. But what important work!
This is a key part of the legal system on which our democratic society is founded. It’s not perfect, but it works extremely well most of the time. There’s a reason why so many countries around the world use similar versions of trial by jury developed over hundreds of years in this country.
I’d like to end with a plea: if you receive a jury summons, please don’t immediately start thinking how you can get out of it. It truly is one of the most important and fulfilling tasks you can undertake as a citizen. If you possibly can, embrace it. I am confident that you will get as much out of it as I did.