A lesson from the jury room

By Moira Billinge

With the passing of the years, I had begun to believe I had escaped being called for jury service – a huge relief as this was something I dearly wanted to avoid. Despite my maternal great-grandfather having been a barrister and my great-great-grandfather a judge, I have failed to inherit any of their legal genes and I wasn't remotely interested in taking on what is often described as being 'one of the most important civic duties that a citizen will ever be asked to perform'.

Recently, however, I received an official-looking letter – my jury summons. In my shock and disbelief I attempted to think of anything that might exclude me from serving but could not find a get-out clause which would legitimately apply to me. Even the word 'summons' sounds daunting, but it is accurate. The process defies any other description because it is not a request or an invitation but a command, and failure to comply without good reason incurs a £1,000 fine. Individuals are selected at random by computer from the electoral register and the minimum time of jury service is two weeks.

When the day arrived, I approached it with a sense of gloom. I felt rather like I had been press-ganged into the whole thing. I know Jesus wasn't referring to jury service when he said to Saint Peter that "someone else will tie a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go" but on my way to court that first morning I considered the passage to be an apt description which perfectly suited my mood.

Just one of the most stringent rules – almost a court mantra – documented in the literature sent to jurors before their service (and highlighted on posters dotted around the building and reinforced at each trial by every judge) is that nothing about the case must be discussed anywhere outside of the jury deliberation room, during or after the trial – not even with close family or friends.

Going online to search for any additional information about the case is also completely forbidden. Breaching any of these rules is so extremely serious that it carries the utterly enforceable penalty of imprisonment.

We know how unscrupulous the media are, and the information gleaned from the internet, or the opinion offered by a relative or friend, might affect our judgement more than the actual evidence presented at the trial and, ultimately, prejudice our verdict. The only way a defendant can have a fair trial is if the jurors hear only the evidence put before them in the courtroom. The rigidity of this and other court rules is absolute, as it should be. The patient, detailed and courteous explanations given at the start of each new trial by the judges make total sense.

If the same rules were to be applied in our normal day-to-day lives, our world would be a much kinder place. Reputations are destroyed by lies and hearsay, and in this age of the internet "the lie is halfway around the world before it's even put its boots on" (Mark Twain). The victims of gossip may never be able to fully reverse the damage that has been inflicted upon them.

Even if we think we know everything there is to know about a story, we don't. A jury may give their verdict, a judge may pass sentence, but only God knows the whole picture and the heart and soul of each individual. I may have railed, initially, against my jury service but I completed it with a new respect for the integrity of our courts and the fairness of our justice system.