Monday, May 08, 2006

My Rumpole-esque Day in Court

Well over a year ago I got a letter warning me that I could be selected for Jury Service sometime this year. Then, just before Easter, I got the follow-up letter informing me to turn up this morning for six week’s Jury Service at Downpatrick Courthouse.

So along with 200 other lucky winners, I drove around the streets surrounding the courthouse in ever increasing circles to find a legal parking space. The car park adjacent to the courts holds 40 cars, while the next closest car park has a grand total of 20 spaces.

Finally parked about half a mile away, I trudged through the rain following a chain of brown envelope-carrying people up the hill to the courthouse, ready to do our civic duty.

From the letter and information provided, we all believed that we’d need to be available as a panel from which to randomly select juries to sit at this particular court for the next six weeks. That was quickly extended to eight weeks when we arrived.

Thank goodness some of the 250 strong jury panel had already got exception - as it was a tight squeeze. After a roll call - teachers, think about having a morning register of 200 people! - we had the option of asking to be exempted (either for the whole period, or for specific days). While the court clerk has discretion about straight-forward reasons, the judge himself deals with the more difficult (saying no to a majority of requests).

So all ready for the first case. Simple matter of calling 12 numbers out of a hat (well, a wooden box) and getting them sworn in. Maybe not. There were five defendants, plus the prosecutors, so plenty of opportunity to challenge potential jurors.

The first set of twelve yielded four jurors. Another round of bingo got twelve candidates downstairs, and another three sworn in. A third set. And eventually after a fourth round - just calling six this time - twelve jurors got past the solicitors and were sworn in, with a few standbys in reserve.

Some of the rejected jurors looked very disappointed when they came back upstairs. What criteria were being used in the cattle market? The solicitors just have the list of names, addresses and occupations of the jury panel to go on, along with what they see when the jurors step forward to be identified.

  • The majority of women were rejected outright. About three were sworn in, mostly under 30.
  • Under 25s tended to be rejected.
  • As was anyone who looked over 60.

How often would the rest of us have to come back to Downpatrick to repeat this farce? I’m not sure John Mortimer ever made Rumpole so difficult to please when it came to the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury”.

Finally, the judge revealed that it would be a long trial, perhaps three to four weeks. So the rest of us are excused from making the trip to Downpatrick until the end of May … unless they write to us before then!

While I'll obviously not comment on any case I end up on the jury for - that would be illegal and in contempt of court - I will continue to let you know of my adventures with the justice system.


David Todd said...

I love jury service. The last one I was on I ended up being the foreman. At the end of the day we'd all decided the defendant wasn't guilty. Out in the carpark who ends up getting a lift back to Belfast in my car. Yes you've guessed it, the defendnt. The trouble was I actually thought he was guilty and was in the minorty in the jury. It was 10 for and 2 against.I never told him that and lived to tell the tale.To save time next time, I'm on a jury, I'm going to take notes and stick to my initial decision and try and persuade the rest of the jury to do the same.

John Self said...

Don't forget that defence and prosecution both can object to potential jurors so you get it from both ends. For example the defence will object to pensioners as they're more likely (by perception) to be 'string-em-up' merchants; or well-to-do folk as they're more likely to be prejudiced against some scally from an estate. The prosecution will object in the opposite way, ie to anyone who looks a bit dodgy themselves or who carries a copy of the Guardian... But each defendant can only object to 12 jurors, so they have to use their challenges carefully. Prosecution has an unlimited number of challenges, but the ones they object to aren't definitively cancelled but simply go back to the end of the queue, so may get picked if all the jurors go through once.

Btw you can comment on the case, just so long as you don't identify parties, witnesses etc.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Hence the cries of "Challenge - fourth defendant" and "standby" from the different sides.

With 12 challenges per defendant, we're lucky they only rejected 30 between the 5 (and prosecution). Could have been at least double that!