I spent the first two weeks of the year on jury service at Southwark and Blackfriars Crown Court (pictured). It was a fairly time-consuming exercise, even though court sittings could be described at times as leisurely. Part of the time was spent waiting and part of the time was spent worrying one might be selected for a case expected to last for several weeks. I almost got selected for one expected to last ten weeks. In the event, I served on the jury on three short trials.
Knowing I was doing jury service, a colleague in the Lords, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, a former member of the Supreme Court, sent me a copy of the High Sheriff’s Law Lecture he gave at Oxford University in 2010, entitled ‘Are Juries a good thing? The jury is out’. In the lecture, he raised some fundamental questions about the value of juries. He recognised the range of experience brought by those selected for jury service, and various other merits attached to trial by jury, but took the view that they were not necessarily especially good at convicting the guilty and acquitting the innocent. He noted that the conviction rate was some 70% in magistrates’ courts and 60% in jury trials. He saw long and complex trials as particularly problematic. He also saw it as a defect that juries do not give reasons for their verdicts. It is now an offence, under the 1981 Contempt of Court Act, to disclose what went on in the jury room – which is why I am confining my comments to the principles of trial by jury and to the way the process operates.
I can appreciate Lord Brown’s doubts, not least in respect of long trials. My concern is more immediate and practical. It concerns the process of calling people for jury service. The selection is necessarily random, drawing names from the electoral register. The result is that some people are called for whom giving up two weeks is difficult. Some people who are keen to do jury service are never called at all. When I mentioned to one or two friends I was going on jury service, their response was ‘You lucky thing, I wish I was doing that’. I did not exactly share their enthusiasm. There are people who would not only be happy to serve on a jury, but also be willing to serve on one lasting several weeks. If their services could be tapped, it would save time when it comes to jury selection. Given the commitments that people have, selecting jurors for a long trial can be problematic.
I am now giving thought to how we can maintain the basic principle of drawing people at random for jury service, but at the same time drawing on the services of those who are keen to serve, especially in trials that may be lengthy. Watch this space.