Wednesday, 16 February 2011

A slight smell of justice

I’ve experienced a welcome change of scenery this week by participating in something I’ve always wanted to do - being called to do jury service. My ‘number’ had come up just after Christmas –perfect timing for me as a trainee journalist. And so, on Monday morning I duly presented myself at a central London Crown Court expecting to get stuck into some nice juicy cases.

For obvious reasons I can’t go into too much detail about what went on in the courtroom itself. Last term’s module on media law with the irrepressible John Battle of ITN gave me a reasonably good overview of what I can and can’t say about a court case, so I’m not going to be tempted to break any laws this early in my career. If you’re interested in what the juror’s experience generally entails, the HMCS website is actually pretty good at preparing you for what to expect. But it doesn’t prepare you for what appears to be a remarkably inefficient system of selecting jurors, once you’ve turned up. I suppose there must be some sort of logic to their system, but I didn’t sit on a single case on Monday, presumably because there were just too many people available. Maybe this is a good thing, as judges are not the sort of people you keep waiting because there aren’t enough jurors (as we found out – read on). I ended up spending a full day back at work before being called back.

Yet it’s still a tight ship. The administration of justice is well organised, with a formidable jury officer, whose matriarchal yet terrifying demeanour strikes the right balance between making sure people are welcomed and keeping the place running to time as far as possible.

Back in court today, I had hoped there would be a little more excitement. I was eventually called just before lunch to sit on a case which, although relatively minor, had made it all the way to Crown Court – costing the taxpayer over £4,000 according to an irritated judge. One person who might have had something to say about that was none other than Harriet Harman, who turned heads when she arrived in the jurors’ assembly area earlier. It made me realise what an egalitarian duty jury service is - even the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party can’t get out of it. I suspect she probably enjoyed a visit back to her roots (she’s a former solicitor after all), and she appeared to be busying herself with constituency business during the downtime.

For what it’s worth, today’s trial was resolved remarkably quickly, after a few hiccups. A point of law and faulty audio-visuals held up the trial for two hours. Then, after lunch, an overpowering smell of what seemed to be paraffin began to give everyone a headache, so we rose again. The usher had warned us that the antiquated building suffered from a lack of fresh air which might send us to sleep, but I wasn’t quite expecting this. It turned out to be an infiltration of fumes into the air-conditioning system, caused by nearby builders putting new asphalt onto a roof. And to top it all, a late juror prompted stern words from the judge.

As we sat for the third time, the defendant changed his plea to guilty, incurring the wrath of the judge and no doubt the court staff, who knew that had he done so at an earlier stage, taxpayers’ money would not have been spent needlessly and the case could have been heard in a magistrates’ court. If the clapped out building and defunct equipment were anything to go by, they need every last penny.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

I look forward - never been called myself!

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