An Account of
Jury Service
The Year -- 1997

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Enter the author, born between VE-Day and VJ-Day, became a legal adult at 21 [the proper age] during the Swinging Sixties, educated cynic. What's he doing giving his time free of charge to Her Majesty's legal system? The answer is quite simple: his name came out of the hat. Not being insane, a criminal, a peer or connected with the legal system in any way, he had no choice in the matter.
   So what happened to him on his trip through a system which, according to its introductory leaflets, begrudges any sort of expenses to the Poor Bloody Infantry in the jury box while paying out fortunes to the characters in wigs? Read on...

Day One -- the Tuesday after Bank Holiday Monday: Early start on a bright, sunny day, arrive at 9:30 for the briefing after a stroll across Manchester from Piccadilly station and a bit of a hunt around for the right door. First surprise of the day was the airport-type security on the way in. Of course, I realized that it's necessary in a world full of mad bombers -- but it's not an expected part of my life in the real world.
   Cash, keys into the well-worn, once white plastic box. Through the gate. BEEP! Searched with the magic wand. A small loose-leaf notebook in my pocket has a metal fastener for securing the pages. The security guard takes it all in his stride. He's seen it all before hundreds of times.
   At the reception desk, asked to "sit over there". Read the paper and wait. Taken up to the third floor by an usher in due course for an introductory briefing. The last people I saw wearing gowns in the real world were teachers and prefects at school. The court system has lots of prefects.
   Up to the third floor in the lift. Will the explanation of what we're supposed to do be the video described in the How To Be A Juror leaflet? Or will it be some bored guy doing it almost in his sleep? Time to find out.
   Reduced from a four-digit identification number to a letter and a two-digit number on the way in to the waiting area. Put my name and address on the expenses form and sign it trustingly. The court usher is on first-name terms with us, like a telephone sales person.
   The video is a comprehensive account of why the gang of people in the room is there - we were picked at random from the electoral register - what happens in court and what they'll do to us if we break their rules. (Threats of fines and/or gaol. Wow!)
   By the time the video is over, and the late arrivals have made their sheepish way into the crowd, about 120 or so people have collected in a long room divided into three sections - the sealed-off smoking section, an area of industrial-strength, vinyl-padded seats with glass-topped tables and an area of standard tables with bendy plastic seats at the snack-bar end.
   Our cheery young usher tells us that there are five trials booked into court and five more "floating" trials looking for somewhere to happen. The courts open for business at 10:30 -- so everything before then is dead time, as far as prospective jurors are concerned. After that, it's just a matter of sitting around and waiting.
   Just once on the first morning, our usher reads out 15 names, from whom 12 will be encumbered with a trial. The coffee costs 40p a cup and the toilets are spacious and well maintained.
   There are lots of frantic bing-bongs on the PA as the system tries to move the counsel, witnesses, police officers and unspecified others into position in the right parts of the building. Things become fairly quiet and peaceful after about 11 o'clock; but just when you're just thinking that it's quite a quiet and pleasant way to spend a day, an another bing-bong intrudes.
   Lunch break from 1-2. The usher reads out a list of names and tells them they can go home. It's almost as if he's decided that those people have had their days ruined by now and, reluctantly, he's decided to released them. Or is that just my paranoia showing through?
   Give my number at the gateway to the outside. Everyone has to book in and out of the waiting area, whether leaving for the day or sneaking out at lunchtime, so that they can slap a fine on you if you're supposed to be there but aren't. I suppose fire regulations come into it too; knowing how many people are in the building.
   Head home with a phone number to ring after six o'clock to find out if they'll need me on Day Two. And so the first of ten working days among the PBI of the British Legal System comes to a close.

Day Two: The voice on the phone last night said all E-numbers had to be there by 10:15 the next day. Arrive at that time to find a full house. Question another punter. She says she arrived at about five to ten and most of the people were there then. Keen types, obviously. The bing-bongs seem few and far between today.
   Our usher says there are five trials in courts and two floaters - which seems rather strange if there are at least 15 courts in the building. Lady prefects in gowns arrive. Two lots of 15 people are plucked at random from the throng. Your author is still stuck there, waiting...
   Just wondering whether to invest 40p in a cup of coffee when another prefect arrives. Next thing you know, I'm being marched off to Court 13, pausing on the way to have my card marked as someone who wants to affirm the oath rather than use the New Testament. No one else does. No one opts to use the Old Testament instead of the new one.
   As the awkward affirmer, my name is called first, putting me in pole position in the jury area. The defendant and his counsel raises no objections to the first 12 names he hears, so the surplus 3 of the 15 delivered are taken back as rejects to the waiting area.
   Some of the jurors had been a bit nervous about having to perform the oath with everyone looking at them -- and, presumably, willing them to fluff it. But it's just a matter of doing a plain performance of the words on the card without rushing through them. And if you do stumble, no one gets killed for it.
   By coincidence, Murder One on BBC 2 last night included a sequence showing the American system of jury selection, where the DA and the defence counsel get to ask the potential jurors all sorts of impertinent questions and can chuck them off the panel if they don't think they'll vote the right way. None of that here.
   The court room was quite small and modern. Tip-up, cinema type seats for the jury and anyone in the dock who wants to sit down - the judge warned one of the prosecution witnesses to be careful if she decided to stand after sitting because the tip-up seats have caused a couple of accidents and he didn't want to be held responsible for another one.
   Those present included 2 stenographers, the clerk of the court, who spent most of her time messing about with paperwork unconnected to the case, a bewigged young lady prosecutor, a middle aged male defence counsel, a middle aged man at the back, who turned out to be the defendant, an unidentified woman in the public seating area, a prefect and the occasional person looking in at the door.
   The judge, on his platform with a desk and a suitably imposing chair, had a laptop PC for his notes, two 12" TV monitors built into a single cabinet, a TV camera and a control pad for the TV system. He was dressed in the full judicial gear and looked quite colourful.
   It turned out that this was a case of alleged indecency involving a child and some of the evidence would be presented on videotape - hence the collection of large-size TV monitors dotted around. Also, the child would be in another room and she was to be questioned using the TV cameras and the monitors.
   The lady prosecutor outlined a case that went as follows: the defendant, 49, had been the sugar daddy of the child's mother, 25, for four years until their relationship had ended in February 1995.
   After that, the mother had continued a relationship with the defendant 'as a friend' and copped for regular sums of money from him for various things. She had also allowed her daughter to spend Friday nights at the defendant's home. A feature of these Friday nights had been a spaghetti dinner and a jacuzzi bath shared by the child and the defendant.
   The prosecution's case was based on what was supposed to have happened on a bath night in June 1995. The problem was that the carefree, cheerful young girl was very suggestible and prone to agree with the last person to say something to her - first supporting the prosecution case then saying none of it was true when the defence had a go.
   When the prosecution finished, the defence asked to speak to the judge 'on a matter of law'. And lo!, when we came back from lunch, the judge announced that he was stopping the case. He wasn't obliged to give us any explanation but, as he was a really nice guy, he gave us one anyway: namely that the prosecution case was based solely on the uncorroborated and variable testimony of a seven-year-old.
   Next thing you know, the guy sitting in pole position in the jury box [your humble narrator] was on his feet, appointed foreman by the judge and obliged to answer yes to the questions: Do you find the defendant not guilty? and Is this the verdict of you all? [which is wasn't except by judgely decree].
   So that was it. Case over. All go home and ring the magic phone number tonight to find out if you're wanted tomorrow.

Day Three: The E-numbers are on duty again today.
   BEEP! The metal detector goes off for the third day in the row; mainly because I'm still wearing the same belt on my trousers. Don't have to bother with the plastic container for money and keys today because I've craftily put them in the side pocket of my bag, which by-passes the detector arch while receiving a cursory inspection. I don't think they bother with the side pockets, so that's where you should put your contraband -- such as a forbidden mobile phone, a personal stereo or a piece of recording equipment.
   Not as many people about today.
   10:30 - opening time. Craig, our first-name-terms usher, tells us that there are four fixed and two floating trials today. Most of them are one-day affairs but one of them is likely to run on to next Friday.
   Ghod! Hope I don't get that one!
   The judges have things to do before they get down to business [what? wash their cars? do some shopping? what?] so everyone has to hover for the moment.
   Wondering whether I'll be landed with another trial, I have time to reflect on the last one. I was struck by the matter-of-factness of the whole thing. Terribly low-key, no dramatics from the witness box, no synthetic rage from the counsel, no argy-bargy between prosecution and defence. Very head-masterly judge. So what's the next one oging to be like? The same? Or more TV-ish, more Rumpole of the Bailey-like?
   Some of the prefects are blokes. Didn't see any yesterday or the day before. One panel of 15 bodies extracted. Then, some time later, another draft of 3 more. The theory is that one of the original jurors in a trial was taken ill and they needed 3 cards so that they could shuffle them to make a random choice of victim [or replacement] in the courtroom.
   12:15 - Craig reads out a list of names, mine included. This fortunate bunch can push off. They don't start trials on a Friday, so anyone not encumbered by then can have a day off. Our parting instructions are to ring the magic number over the weekend to find out if we're needed to hang about on Monday.
   End of Day Three and end of a week that started with a bank holiday.

Cup Final Weekend -- Man Utd. 1, Liverpool 0: Ring the hot-line, hear a string of E-numbers required on Monday -- mine not included.

Monday evening: Ring the hot-line, same story.

Tuesday evening: All jurors must report on for possible action on Wednesday. Just in passing, realize that the E-numbers have been joined by F-numbers. There were C-numbers mentioned on the hot-line last week. Whatever happened to D-numbers? One of life's little mysteries.

Wednesday: This doesn't feel like "Day Anything" of a continuous process. Beep! goes the metal detector on the way in. The bloke with the hand metal-detector can't be bothered checking my belt buckle today.
   Arrive to be told that there are five trials and two floaters, and everyone should be fixed up today. Prefects come and prefects go. I'm left sitting here, looking over some work and doing some preparatory stuff.
   More prefects come and go and I've finished my preparatory work and I need the use of my computer which is at home because it ain't portable.
   Lunchtime comes and goes. Then, finally, at twenty to three in the afternoon, the microphone bursts into life and our usher reads out a list of names mine included. Push off home and get to work.
   In the evening, the voice on the hot-line reads out some E-numbers, taking care to skip mine. Then he says that anyone not mentioned has finished their jury service now.
   On yer bike, not even a thank-you.

So that's it. My "Ten Working Days" included just four appearances at the court building and just one involvement in a trial -- which turned out to be a total waste of space in the court calendar.
   As I sit at my computer, typing out the final page of this document, I'm left with a feeling that the British legal system is pretty much a waste of space too, perhaps just an expensive job-creation scheme for overpaid and underemployed judges and counsel and a means of giving the dignity of labour to herds of ushers, prefects, catering staff, security staff, etc. The cynic lives! And remains as cynical as ever.

Contributed by Henry T. Smith, who is the Visiting Professor of Email Genetics at the University of Central Northern England.
   "The world of email genetics has no more respected correspondent."
      the Grauniad

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