The jury trial is an exciting feature of our criminal justice system. When people are accused of serious offences, they generally have a right to be tried by 12 members of the public. We believe that this is the best way to ensure that verdicts are fair, reasonable and unbiased. For ordinary people, being thrust into the Crown Court, with its wigs, gowns and sporadic use of Latin can be a little confusing. So, whether you’ve just received a pink slip summoning you, or whether you’re wondering why you have never been summoned, don’t worry, we’ve got the answers.
HOW DOES A JURY MAKE DECISIONS?
A jury’s decision should be based on the evidence before them in court. They decide what has been proved and what has not and return a verdict on each count, based on their view of the facts and what the judge tells them about the law. If the jurors are sure of a defendant’s guilt, they must convict. You may have heard people use the rather dramatic term “beyond reasonable doubt”. The truth is, we don’t say that anymore; we just ask whether jurors are sure. If the jury aren’t sure of the defendant’s guilt, they must acquit.
The Jury isn’t always shown all the evidence. Evidence can be excluded if it is, for instance, irrelevant, unfair or inadmissible. Let’s say a man has accused his ex-wife of hitting him. She might want the jury to hear about his teen shoplifting addiction, to try and convince the jury that he is a dishonest and that his allegations could be made up. The judge will need to decide whether this is relevant, and whether it is fair for the jury to hear about it. He may decide that it’s outdated evidence and completely irrelevant and simply an attempt to smear the husband’s character and prejudice the jury against him. If so, he would exclude the evidence. To keep jurors isolated from hearing evidence that might prejudice them, they are sent to the jury room during any legal arguments. They are also forbidden from doing their own research and are told to disregard anything they may happen to read in the press. Most of what happens in the court is publicly reported, but the jury deliberates in private: jurors can only talk about the case when they are all together in the jury room. They cannot talk to anyone else about the case. A juror who does so, or anyone who tries to get them to do so, could be found to be in contempt of court, and could go to prison, get a fine, or both.
A jury’s decision must usually be unanimous. In some circumstances however, a majority verdict may be acceptable. Such circumstances may arise if the jury has not reached a unanimous verdict on one or more counts after having deliberated for a reasonable amount of time (considering the nature and complexity of the case), and after no less than two hours in any event. In such instances, the court may invite a majority verdict. On a panel of 12 or 11 jurors, 10 must agree. On a panel of 10 jurors, 9 must agree. If for any reason there are 9 jurors or fewer, the verdict must always be unanimous. If no decision can be reached, then the panel is considered a “hung jury.” If the crown still intends to prosecute they must start over with a new jury.
DOES A JURY HAVE TO EXPLAIN ITS DECISION?
A jury cannot, and will never be asked to, explain its reasoning. Even after a case a juror must never discuss or reveal what took place in the privacy of their jury room, as this would, again, amount to contempt of court. So exactly how any particular decision is reached will always be a mystery to anyone outside the room. In practice, this means the judge’s directions may get disregarded or decisions could be made based on all manner of prejudice, bias, speculation or other such irrelevant considerations. As a result, there are those who believe a jury should be forced to give reasons or even be abolished entirely.
WHY HAVE I NEVER BEEN SUMMONED FOR JURY SERVICE?
Crown Court trials are required only in a small minority of cases. Many investigations never get to the stage where there is sufficient evidence to charge a suspect. Even when a suspect is charged, very few require a jury trial because most defendants are either dealt with in the magistrates’ court, plead guilty or see the prosecution’s case collapse before trial.
The result is that there just aren’t that many jurors needed. Government stats suggest that between 2008 and 2011 the Jury Central Summoning Bureau summoned under 380,000 and supplied under 180,000 jurors to the court on average per year. These are selected at random from the electoral register, and there are over 45 million people on the register. Of course, there are some limitations concerning age, residency, capacity and good character, but even once ineligible demographics are removed, your odds of being summoned in any given year are long. Over a lifetime, BBC sources estimated there is only a 35% chance that a person in England or Wales will be summoned for jury service, so don’t hold your breath. Many of those who are selected will never actually sit in court anyway because the normal practice is to call more jurors than are actually needed.
WHAT’S JURY SERVICE LIKE?
Different jurors have vastly different experiences. There are considerable differences in the nature of the cases that come through the courts. Some are exciting, some less so, some are traumatic and some have moments of humour or absurdity. Depending on the cases you hear, jury service can be a short rush of thrilling but painful uncertainty or a long boring slog. All too often, jury service is a frustrating wait only for the trial to crack or collapse without actually sitting.
Sometimes, jury service can be distressing. Jurors have immense responsibility and are asked to make important decisions in traumatic cases.
Jury service can also take a long time. Normally a jury service lasts two weeks (10 working days) but some trials can be very long indeed and the same jurors must hear the evidence in its entirety. One unfortunate jury found themselves sitting for 20 months on a property fraud trial.
WILL THE COURT PAY ME?
The bad news is you won’t be paid as such. You can, however, claim some expenses for travel, parking and food. Some employers will pay you if you are selected. If yours doesn’t, you can still claim some compensation for your loss of earnings (only £64.95 per day for the 10 working days but this increases steadily up to £228.06 in very long trials.)
CAN I GET OUT OF DOING IT?
You wouldn’t be alone in hoping to avoid this civic duty. Surveys show that that most people would decline a jury summons if it was voluntary, mainly for the inconvenience. Avoiding it, however, is ill advised: you cannot simply refuse and it is a criminal offence to not answer a jury summons without reasonable cause. You may, however, be able to defer (or possibly be excused) if you’ve served in the last two years or have a good reason. This could be due to unusual hardship, inability to speak English, a pre-booked holiday, operation or exam; or because your employer refuses to give you time off work.
To defer jury service, or be excused, you have to write to the Jury Central Summoning Bureau. You’ll need to explain why and provide evidence. Applications must be considered carefully, sympathetically and with regard to the individual circumstances of the applicant. It’s worth reading the official guidance for summoning officers before applying.
CAN I VOLUNTEER TO DO IT?
Jury service is a unique duty that many hope to experience. If you are among the keen or curious, then you’ll have to just wait for that pink letter. Alternatively, you can have part of the experience without the responsibility: go to your local crown court and sit in the public gallery for a short trial. You may be privy to some evidence or legal argument that the jury doesn’t see, but it will give you a good idea of what it’s like to form an opinion on a real case based on the evidence.
AS A JUROR, WHAT DO THE LAWYERS THINK OF ME?
“Beware the nodding juror” is advice given by countless experienced barristers. “You think they’re with you, but they’ll convict your client anyway”. Many have been surprised so many times by verdicts that they will have given up trying to read you. Others still speculate tirelessly, tearing their hair out and over-analysing your crossed arms or stern expression. They may talk about you with their pupil, their instructing solicitor or even with their opponent in the robing room but they will never know exactly what goes on in your head or in your deliberations. If you’ve ever been on a jury, chances are you’ve kept some poor lawyer up at night.