Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Jury service

A couple of days ago, I was taken to the opera by a friend. We had a very good time, sitting in the very front row, where we could watch the conductor and the orchestra, and see the cast close up. During the interval, we went to a select little lounge where we were plied with wine and sandwiches. We settled down in the chairs to have a good talk about the performance. Then we noticed a person in a uniform, wearing so much gold braid she'd evidently been to Fort Knox. She came and talked to us for a while, during which we noticed a familiar looking face and figure nearby. Yes, it was our Governor General, who, like us, is apparently un'appassionata of opera. She came and talked to us too, so we rose to our feet. She is very very thin.

However, this little snippet is only by way of introduction to what I really want to write about. My friend NH and I met only a few years ago, on jury service, for a murder trial, which lasted almost seven weeks. There is much written about the jury system, but probably relatively little about what it is like to serve on a jury. I read one somewhere, I think by Joanna Mendelssohn, and she was, I think, quite critical of the experience and the conditions.

Hence this post. Our experience was overwhelmingly positive.

The summons for jury service arrived a number of weeks before the date specified, and in fact we had to watch the Law Notices in the newspaper to check for any deferment, which did occur. Because of the possibility that I might be empanelled, I had to ensure that I was available. This meant that I could only make a very quick visit to Melbourne to attend my daughter's 40th birthday party. Nor could I help the family in the rescue endeavour we planned and executed to extract our youngest sister from her awful marriage. While I helped plan it, the escape took place during the trial period. Briefly, the plan was to move my sister and her belongings from the family home (her husband was exerting huge pressure to force her to leave, and it became very evident that he was not going to budge, or act in a manner anywhere near approaching decency) and so we got her out secretly. The extended family got together, hired a removalist, and helped her pack, and get out half an hour before her husband arrived home. We live in exciting times.

Back to the main story. The jury service was a most absorbing and positive experience. Before my summons I did not think I knew many people who had served on juries, but once I spoke of my experience, I heard many other stories, going back many years, often of awful and tragic cases. Some told how women were bullied by male jurors and their views brushed aside. This has evidently changed.

While the numerous people who had been summonsed for jury service that day were still milling around unprocessed, a woman approached me. She had noticed I was filling the shining hour by doing some Italian homework, and recognised me, as she studied Italian at the same institution. She had also found someone else, who actually was Italian. Strangely enough, the three of us were empanelled.

The twelve selected jurors were all very different, but there were quite a few coincidences and similarities, which I would not have expected from a process which was done by selecting numbers from a box. To protect juror privacy and anonymity, each potential juror is given a number and is never identified at any stage by name. The number before mine was called and that person was chosen. I assumed that my number was unlikely to be called, but it was the next number chosen. As was I.

When we all gathered in the jury room, we gradually discovered these coincidences and similarities. Three of us studied Italian at the same institution. Four of us sang in choirs. Two of us had been librarians. Four were not born in Australia. Five were ardent knitters and crocheters. (This, I hasten to add virtuously, we did only in our breaks, or before the day started, but a lot got produced.)

Naturally, being together for so long, we got to know each other reasonably well. I suppose we had all heard horror stories of jurors being bullied, of arguments and fights occurring, of decisions being made before all the evidence had been presented and before both prosecution and defence cases had been given. But I can honestly say that this jury experience was not remotely like that. Everyone worked very hard and co-operatively, politely and without hostility or abuse. Each person brought different abilities, insights and understanding to the work. We reviewed the evidence many times, and were thoroughly familiar with everything. I cannot give any of the details of our deliberations, because this is prohibited.

A murder trial is very serious, and this particular crime was committed in cold blood. The nature of the crime must be borne in mind all during the trial. In the end we were unable to agree on a verdict and were discharged. There were good reasons for our failure to reach agreement. A verdict was reached in a later case, which accorded with my own judgement.

When I say that the experience was absorbing, I mean that we all thought about it both day and night. All the time. It occupied our minds completely, even when we were not in court or in the jury room.

For many of the jurors it was difficult. Some of us were retired, but others were obliged to take time off their jobs, or to squeeze in time after court had finished for the day. The mother of one of the jurors died during the trial. We had to adjust to not being allowed out, and when travelling to and from the court had to ensure that there was no contact with anyone connected with the case, who might be travelling on the same bus or ferry. The court staff were generally very competent, helpful and pleasant, and told us when we were discharged what a good jury we had been - not like some, they added. I have never regretted being on that jury.

The jury pay was lousy. There has been a Law Reform Commission Report into the NSW jury system, which recommended abolition of many of the categories of exemption from jury service, and also increasing the pay. Before this trial there had been instances when some jurors spoke to the media about their verdicts, and jeopardised the process. I think the law relating to confidentiality of the jury process was tightened, and the numbering system was introduced to ensure juror anonymity.

When my children were small I was summonsed for jury service in the ACT. I could have claimed exemption because of the age of the children, but chose to do what I considered to be my civic duty. The case was a murder trial, and a most dreadful and awful case. A woman whose husband had beaten her frequently and brutally for many years finally killed him. Both had been survivors of concentration camps. I was challenged by the prosecution, and I am sure it was because I am a woman. Not enough people had been summonsed to exhaust the rights of challenge, and so everyone was discharged, and a new set of summonses were issued. My next door neighbour was one of them. The woman pleaded guilty, so no trial was necessary, and was remanded for sentencing. Then she attempted suicide. It was very evidently an extremely tragic and difficult case, and my recollection is that the woman was given a suspended sentence. Justice was done, I think. Later revisions were made to the criminal law to allow for weight to be given to a defence on grounds of wife beating and domestic violence.


Meggie said...

A very interesting post! My brother has been called (in NZ) for Jury service 7 times. He has responded positively each time, and has been accepted 4 times. One case was cancelled when all accused pled guilty- wrongly in his opinion. His experiences were mostly positive too, with all jurors being extremely aware of the gravity of the service.

Laura Jane said...

Interesting topic!

I have never served on a jury, yet have been called 4 times. Once I was out of the country for 6 months, once I had a young disabled child and twice in recent years I have been working in an excusable area, although if we weren't so shortstaffed I would defintely consider it, but bowed out each time, not wantinbg to contribute to any grey hairs in my managers.

I'm glad I wasn't empannelled the last time because it turned out was a serious drug case jury being chosen that day, and I would still be there NOW.

I really hope to do my civic duty some day.

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating post. It was interesting to learn more about the process of serving on a jury. In Queensland it felt like I was summoned every single year since I enrolled to vote, but I always claimed an exemption since my mother is a lawyer and I used to do secretarial work at her firm across all the departments, so had seen a lot of the criminal files. Naturally this excuse is not going to work in NSW, and I think the new reforms mean that my PhD research won't be a worthwhile excuse either. I have often wondered how fair juries end up being, in the end, since so many people are able to seek exemptions that it can hardly be a good cross-section of society who even turn up.

molly said...

Fascinating story. It does seem that a lot of people try to wiggle out of jury duty. But it is so much better a system than dictatorship where your fate is decided by some crazy-with-power person or persons! My F-I-L always waxes poetic about how wonderful it was to visit Spain under Franco!! For me, I'll take the chaos and untidiness of democracy, however flawed, any day.....

Frogdancer said...

I've only been called once for jury duty, over 20 years ago. I got out of it because I was a teacher, and I suppose if I get called again I couldn't go because I've got 2 year 12 classes. It sounds fascinating though.

Anonymous said...

I am slowly easing myself back into blogland. Look at what I have missed ! I have never done jury duty, nor been called. I am a justice of the peace. I wonder if that would ecuse me? I'd love to do jury durty!