When the pale pink Jury Service form dropped through the letterbox last year, my first reaction was “Oh S*&%.” A maelstrom of questions filled my head. How will I stay in touch with clients when I’m walled up in a court all day? Will they stop me using my phone? What’s it going to cost in lost income? What if I get something wrong?
All valid questions to which even the great Google didn’t provide entirely satisfactory answers. Eight months later and with jury service now done, I have a mind still full of the experience and my questions have (mostly) been answered. Here are a few things I learned.
Pack a book, a flask and your patience
Everyone tells you there will be lots of downtime. Which generally is true, so bring what you need to make that time productive. And believe it or not, they don’t provide free hot drinks – I’m not sure if this is a result of recent austerity but you spend all day in the Juror’s lounge and they won’t give you as much as one free cup of tea. In my court, every hot drink was £2, even hot water (bringing your own teabag was pointless). So, a Thermos of your favourite beverage is a great idea, though be prepared to taste it when you enter the court building (unidentified liquids are still considered a security risk).
They have wi-fi
The jurors’ lounge at the court I attended was enormous, a sort of super-charged sixth form common-room, with piles of books, games, crosswords, craft materials (want to learn to crochet? Now’s your chance!). Even two pool tables. And yes, a secure Wi-Fi connection. While you’re there, you can use your laptop, phone, do some work – as much as you like. That’s if you can find a quiet spot. But know that you’ll need to drop it at a moment’s notice if you get called.
You’ll have your lunch when you’re told you can
No-one leaves the jurors’ lounge without permission. Lunch is usually between 1 and 2pm but you can’t go out until the Jury Manager declares that its lunchtime (officially). And when the jury you’re on retires, you must take your lunch into the jury room with you as you won’t be allowed to leave the room until you’re done. Or until you reach the end of the day, when you’ll be sent home with strict instructions not to look at the internet, read anything about the trial in the paper or talk about it to anyone - before returning to resume the next day.
Trials can last a LONG time
On the day I arrived, two long trials were due to start: one of eight, one of ten weeks. You’ll be given the chance to say if you don’t feel you can serve that long. But you must provide a ‘substantive reason’– if you booked a holiday after you’d told the court you’d be available that isn’t necessarily going to cut it. Fortunately, being self-employed usually does. If you don’t speak out and end up on a long trial jury, you’ll struggle to be released. You could also be substantially fined if you don’t serve.
Be prepared to find out things you didn’t want to know
If you’re picked for a jury, within minutes you’ll be immersed into a trial and a world that’s probably miles from your own. Your ears will be burning with vivid descriptions, words you don’t usually hear in public (repeated, endlessly) and narratives that may make your hair stand on end. It’s a sobering experience.
If you can’t understand something, say so
In the court, there’s so much to take in. You’ll be required to sit for hours and concentrate very, very hard. The judge will try and make it easier for you and explain anything that’s not clear. But if you have an issue, you must raise your hand or pass a note to the usher. The same goes if you need the loo. Our judge made it clear at the beginning: if you’re too cold, too hot, unable to hear or simply need a comfort break say so - because uncomfortable people will be worrying about that discomfort not concentrating on proceedings, which is what they’re there to do.
People hear things differently
When my jury retired, it was a shock to discover that what I’d perceived in the court room was very different to what many of the other jurors had (not a good start when you’ve been instructed to reach a unanimous verdict). With so much information to process, inevitably people will focus on different elements and interpret what they hear in radically different ways, all coloured by their own backgrounds, preconceptions and experiences. This can result in very long deliberations and a lot of soul searching as you jointly try to reach the right decision. It’s a salutary lesson in communication and clarity – we may all have similar ears but what goes on between them makes for diverse interpretation.
You’ll need a rest afterwards
The unfamiliar environment, the depth of detail, the long hours and the sheer mental pressure to ‘do the right thing’ make jury service exhausting. I found it hard not to run over the proceedings in my mind; slept badly and was physically drained by the time I was released, even though I was only needed for a few of the allotted ten days. Even so, I’m glad to have had the experience and if I’m called to serve again, I won’t hesitate to do so. And after all, I know to take my Thermos flask next time.