What it’s like to do jury duty when you are a barrister

Avatar photo

By Andy Creer on

Hardwicke’s Andy Creer experiences life on the other side of the courtroom


When it comes to jury service there are generally three types of people:

1) Those who are ambivalent, simply not bothered about doing it;

2) Those who have always wanted to do it but have not been called; and,

3) Those who used to be in category two but have since done it.

Oh, and there are lawyers. Since the enactment of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 in April 2004, we lawyers (along with doctors, politicians, clergy and members of the police force) can no longer play our professional “Get Out of Jail Free” card to avoid our civic duty.

Actually, I fall into an unusual sub-set, as someone who has done jury service twice: once before being called to the bar and, now, again as a legal professional.

Last time I had insight into how malleable some jurors might be. One of my panel commented before the start of the second day’s evidence, “I read in the paper this morning that the Defendant did XXX so it must be true…” (Unhelpfully, the local rag had not told her that, as a juror, she shouldn’t be reading the story or discussing it with another panel member).

This time I was conscious that my legal training might influence other members of the jury. I consulted the Bar Standards Board guidelines, which in summary suggest that we should (a) not volunteer what we do for a living — fine, leave the wig and gown at home then; and, (b) not mislead the panel — well, that’s a relief, though I’m slightly concerned that I needed to be told that I should not mislead the jury in the efficient administration of justice. We get to leave that privilege to others — for example, the juror who knowledgeably informed the others that the County Court was an intermediate level between the Mags and the Crown Court. (The first year of her law degree clearly standing her in good stead to be a consultant on “Broadchurch”).

So for my two weeks at Reading Crown Court, I decided to try to keep a low profile. I planned to duck the “What do you do for a living?” question with: “I’m a self-employed property advisor”. From previous dinner parties, I was confident that the mere mention of rights of pre-emption, subrogation and enfranchisement would put most people off asking anything further…

After all, the jury is an arbiter of fact not law. The little I might remember of criminal law should not be relevant, as the judge should give any directions necessary. I would have to quietly ignore matters like failing to give a good character reference or, as I did, watching defence counsel reading through pages of prior convictions.

One of the most commented upon aspects of jury service is the waiting around. There appears to be no discernible correlation between reassurances of “it shouldn’t take long” and the time spent waiting. The last time I did jury service I got our panel told off because of this. We were in an ante-room just off Court Five. We had strict instructions to be quiet and just wait. Having left all our belongings in the lockers, boredom had set in. The next thing an angry usher flew in because the ante-room had erupted with laughter after I innocently suggested that we “play Hangman”.

Being a civil practitioner, I appreciate that it is likely that a judge will have various procedural applications in his/her list as well as the trial. Therefore, I was bemused when Tom, a member of the court staff, proffered the only explanation for the delays as being: “Sometimes the courts aren’t ready to start on time because the barristers are late”. (Thanks Tom, but I think you’ll find that the only person who inexcusably delayed the start of one of our sittings was the aforementioned law student.)

Nonetheless, the waiting is wearing, in part because you have no information about how long you might be sitting there and because, unless you are a smoker, you cannot leave the room. The exception being that once the jury has retired, non-smokers are then required to participate in any cigarette break, as all 12 of the panel have to stay together under the supervision of one jury officer.

While I didn’t enjoy the actual trials, the group dynamics were fascinating. On day one, as people enter the main jury waiting room, they pick the free seat equidistant from those already occupied. By mid-afternoon, notwithstanding the boredom, rather than risk speaking to someone new, grown men unashamedly sit reading Women’s Health & Beauty magazine. However, the jury room gets progressively noisier over the fortnight as people bond through their shared experience. Although, of course, there is limited interaction between jury panels, as they belong to different tribes.

When not in court, my panel got on remarkably well together and there was a lot more banter than the length of our acquaintance would normally afford (11 of us sat on the same two panels in the second week). Do not think for one moment that this indicated any irreverence to the importance of the decision with which we were tasked. Everyone understood it could be a life-changing decision for the victims, defendants and their respective families. Indeed, one might suggest that ours was a natural reaction to the seriousness of that task.

I noticed significant individual differences in the note taking in court. Some jurors didn’t write anything down, others only made notes during the closing speeches and/or when the judge summed up. It did make me wonder whether the function of closing speeches could be explained more carefully and with it more emphasis put on what is evidence. For example, something along the lines of:

You should pay particular attention to what the witnesses say or do not say. Their testimony and any exhibits you are shown are the evidence on which you should decide this case. At the end of the case, the prosecution and defence counsel will provide their own summary of the evidence. This is the evidence that you yourself will have heard and seen. Counsel will emphasise those parts of the evidence which is relevant to their case and will invite you to draw conclusions from it…

In both of the cases on which I was empanelled, we returned unanimous verdicts in relatively short periods of time, though we certainly weren’t close to breaking the record at Reading, which an usher told us was five minutes. For me, personally, the concept of a majority verdict has always been counter-intuitive: if only 10 out of 12 people are sure, why doesn’t the dissention by 16% of the panel itself constitute reasonable doubt?

More interesting still is which parts of the evidence are persuasive to different individuals on the panel. If I were a criminal practitioner, I would certainly draw on this new insight. But, as juries are not allowed to discuss their deliberations, you’ll have to do jury service and find out for yourself!

Andy Creer is a barrister specialising in property law at Hardwicke.