The privilege (and perils) of civic duty

I was cited to attend court for jury service last week. My initial reaction was, “Can I get out of it?” I reviewed the various exclusion/exemption categories, but I didn’t fit any of them. So I turned up, as required and joined a throng of prospective jurors.

scalesThe workings of our court system seem strange to me. Time seems to have a different meaning within the court building – 5 minutes becomes quarter of an hour; shortly can mean up to an hour. To my mind, it is not slick or well organised. So I sat in the uncomfortable pews, hoping that I wouldn’t be picked. (By ‘picked’ I mean having a piece of paper with my name on it pulled out of a plastic goldfish bowl.)

Inevitably I was selected and joined 14 others to sit and judge the facts. I think it’s fair to say that none of us were eager recruits. The fact that the trial was estimated to last for four days didn’t add to our joy.

However, as the Sheriff explained our role, I was struck by the responsibility that had been placed on us. He would guide us on matters of law, but we would be the judges of the facts. We would determine the verdict. I realised that it is a huge privilege to be part of this process in a free country.

It was a privilege to be a key part of the system, with no training or experience; to be presented with evidence and look for corroboration; to judge the facts as impartially as possible. But most of all, it was a privilege to witness the human implications of our legal process and the humanity of those who were involved. The Sheriff and the lawyers on both sides were conscious of the emotions of the families who attended each session. This was not a television drama with hostile cross-questioning. Rather, it was a professional and thorough exploration of all aspects of the case.

And the perils?

On several occasions the Sheriff referred to the problems of conducting “21st century justice in a 19th century building”.

More pertinently as a juror, I think there were three specific perils to navigate:

  • Avoiding the dangers of groupthink when we came to make our decisions. You need to listen to all voices, not just the loudest/most confident ones.
  • Ensuring that our decision was based on corroborated evidence, not just our opinions/impressions of what happened or who was involved.
  • Taking the time to be judicious, rather than judgemental.

Would I do it again?

Yes, without hesitation, and hopefully with a bit less complaining!

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