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Jury duty: reflections of a first year law student

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Seeing law applied first-hand is an invaluable experience for aspiring lawyers, says law and history undergrad David Dee

As a first-year law student, I was called upon for jury service earlier this summer. I was eager to see how my limited legal knowledge would affect my experience. Likewise, the idea of seeing the law in practice, from the perspective of lay people, was something that equally fascinated me.

On my first day I was assigned to a jury at random via a computer. The jury I had been assigned to was very diverse, with many ethnicities and genders being represented. Diversity in a jury is critical as it is a way that beliefs from across the breadth of society can be represented in the justice system. Without these beliefs being represented, law would not serve society. There would be a significant disconnect between the values and ethics that the people want the law to exhibit, and what the law would actually enforce. Society is anything but static and as time progresses, demographics and values change, and these changes need to be shown in the criminal justice system. If there is a failure to do so, respect for the system will be lost.

However, the level of diversity in my jury was down to sheer luck. Assigning people to juries at random maintains integrity by avoiding positive discrimination but does not guarantee diversity. This could potentially alter the course of justice in a dramatic way. If there was a contentious legal issue present in a case and the members of the jury all came from very similar socio-economic backgrounds, then the verdict that they reach could be completely unrepresentative of general society. Although the chances of this are slim, it is nonetheless a possibility. In a case where a defendant is potentially facing the reality of a long custodial sentence, a lack of diversity in a jury has life-altering consequences.

Regrettably, the only other alternative to random selection would be positive discrimination. This should be avoided at all costs. Positive discrimination within a jury does guarantee diversity but brings entirely new problems. Minority groups in society would have to be present in a greater proportion of juries than what they actually represent in society. This then leads to the more established groups in society having their beliefs marginalised, despite forming a significant part of the population. Logistical problems are also present, as positive discrimination would mean consistently requiring individuals from minorities to serve on juries. This would greatly interfere with the everyday lives of these people, even if the views that they hold are the same as other groups.

The case which I served on a jury for concerned the defendant being charged with the offence of making threats to kill, contrary to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. To use the judge’s words, this was not a complex case. I was excited to see how it developed as I had completed a criminal law module in the previous academic year that covered this offence. I felt confident in my understanding of what needed to be satisfied in both the actus reus and mens rea of the offence, in order for a guilty verdict to be reached.

What took me completely by surprise was that within the first ten minutes of the case starting, I had already begun to believe the defendant to be guilty. The first piece of evidence presented to the court I felt to be particularly compelling and (at least in my mind) satisfied both the actus reus and mens rea for the offence.

The judge directed myself and my fellow jurors in the appropriate manner throughout. Even with my limited experience, after being presented with the compelling first piece of evidence I sat there considering how the defense would counteract the prosecution? With the judge stating the simplicity of the case, I was intrigued as to what the remainder of the court session would consist of. I found the evidence presented therein focused on establishing the overall context of the situation, especially the relationship between the defendant and the person that they had allegedly threatened to kill.

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The advocacy of the barristers was second to none. They were highly professional but in no way intimidating or condescending. These traits could also be used to describe the judge and all court staff I encountered. I’d been told numerous times about the reality of the law in practice at university and how (as a general rule) the media misrepresents it for entertainment purposes. Nevertheless, I was still amazed. The soft skills that the barristers displayed truly served the court and the course of justice. Without their professional conduct, the witnesses would not have been so forthcoming, neither would they have been able to express what they wanted to. It is invaluable for law students to see the law being applied first-hand. It gives you something to aim for, regardless of the path in law that you wish to pursue.

That being said, exemplary advocacy is a double-edged sword. In all cases, some evidence can be presented to the jury that do not directly deal with the actus reus or mens rea for the offence but instead establish the context. Establishing context is an absolutely essential component of a fair trial as well as to understand the relationship between the parties. However, barristers with exceptional oratory skill can place emphasis on certain facts of context that can be extremely convincing to the lay person.

I was in a position to constantly question myself and ask whether the evidence showed the actus reus or mens rea to be satisfied or not. This acted as a filter for me in reaching my verdict. It kept me focused on what was relevant and to the appropriate extent. I could appreciate the barristers’ fantastic advocacy but not be convinced by it alone. This ability to filter through evidence in court has undoubtedly come from my time studying law. Does this suggest that jurors should have some form of legal training? If so, does that undermine the entire point of having a jury consisting of individuals from outside the legal profession?

It was now time for myself and my fellow jurors to retire to consider our verdict. During deliberation it was clear that the brilliant advocacy of the defence barrister had a great impact on the lay people in the jury. His eloquent manner and delivery ensured that in a seemingly clear-cut case (in favour of the prosecution), the case for the defence was still very convincing to the lay person. The result of this was that us as a jury still took a whole day of deliberation, before a unanimous verdict of guilty was reached. If this had been a typical scenario-based question in a first-year criminal law seminar, then I’m sure a consensus of a guilty verdict in the group would have been found much sooner.

Even as a first-year student the dramatic implications of this were immediately apparent. It demonstrated to me the power of advocacy. Had circumstances been only slightly different (such as the composition of the jury) then the course of justice could have followed an entirely different path. This, in turn, raises further questions on a much broader scale. Does a jury fully understand the legal tests that should be applied? If a jury were to be provided with some form of legal training what would this consist of? Is it even practical to provide training to jurors?

The experience of serving on a jury as a first-year law student is an experience that cannot be underestimated. It gave me the chance to see how the law is applied on a day-to-day basis, enabling me to witness the sheer professionalism of legal professionals and the skills they exhibit. Not only does this inspire me in my continuing studies, it has also provided me with further points to reflect upon regarding juries in the legal system. For a first-year law student, seeing a case unravel in real life has been nothing but enlightening.

David Dee (pseudonym) studies law with history at a Russell Group university.

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30 Comments

JDP

Is the camera that took the headline photograph one of those cameras that can see through doors?

Martin Routh

“If there was a contentious legal issue present in a case and the members of the jury all came from very similar socio-economic backgrounds, then the verdict that they reach could be completely unrepresentative of general society.”

The jury shouldn’t be deciding any legal issue, contentious or not. That’s a matter for the judge. And I’m not sure where you’re getting the assumed premise that the resolution of a legal issue should be (or can be) a matter that is representative of general society.

It might be different with a contentious factual issue – which it is the jury’s function to resolve. A jury of white Daily Mail readers may well take a different view of the police than a jury of young men from BAME backgrounds.

Anon

“…then I’m sure a consensus of a guilty verdict in the group would have been found much sooner.”

Quicker justice is not better justice.

I’m of the opinion that there should be no “legal training” for a jury. Remember, most members of a jury (and public) will decide based upon emotion and for that reason barristers deploy pathos. There are also plenty of emotionally driven lawyers out there. Why not go with the way the majority thinks? Wouldn’t this be more representative of society?

Anonymous

Quicker justice is cheaper justice and as a 45% taxpayer I approve of cutting costs.

Anonymous

Would you say the same if you one day ended up a defendant?

Make it stop

Let me help if you feel TL;DR – I sat on a jury of the population drawn at random. Here’s my startling obvious view peppered with a few bits of Latin I learned in some of my first year modules.

Presumably this is the first in a series of doe eyed pseudo legal-sociological guff?

Anonymous

I would hate to have been one of the other jurors. Can you imagine being lectured by this dude non stop, insisting that we consider whether the requisite mens rea and actus reus had been proven, no doubt pulling out his criminal law text book and pomposuly quoting case law. They probably deliberated so long because of him.

Donna from Archives

Bowing to almost knee height when exiting for lunch.

Anonymous

Probably referred to counsel as “my learned friend”.

Anon

To any law student considering a career in litigation. Instead of trawling through vapid law student blogs, get yourself into a bloody Court / Tribunal (civil, criminal, employment – whatever) whenever you have a few moments freetime. If you have no work experience on your ticket, you’ll at least get to see advocacy in motion and gain some insight into Court ettiqutte and mechanics. It also shows initative and may give you something to talk about at interviews if you’re light on experience. I can guarentee you’ll acquire more useful knowledge during a day observing Court than through 100 ‘OMG LIFE AS A VAC SCHEME CANDIDATE’ videos on YT.

Anonymous

Is anyone else utterly sick of this virtue-signalling diversity-pushing twaddle.

Yes, we want our juries to reflect society.

That’s why we take a random sample of 12 people from society.

This isn’t controversial or contentious.

Nothing more needs be said.

Jane

Well done for sitting and telling us about it.
It might be worth sending your article to someone to correct the English as it could have a huge impact your future career – pretty easy things but worth knowing.

Secondly it sounds like you have been hypnotised in some kind of politically correct chamber as regards “diversity”. The big issue is not whether they can find unemployed people to sit but whether they can get those in full time jobs – that is the diversity problem on juries – getting the well off and educated but who are not retired to sit on them in a UK which is 82% white.

Gazzer for 1st

That’s what P.As are for, Janet.

Anon

“both” genders?? What about gender non-binary people?

Anonymous

Such people deserve our respect and support. I wish them every kindness, and I hope they receive all the mental health treatment and care that they may reasonably require.

Anon

Blatant discrimination. Reported.

Anonymous

Translation.

“Blatant wrongthink. Reported.”

Anon

Trial by jury is a huge waste of money that suits criminals when lay jurors cannot see past the day in day out tricks and misdirections of criminal barristers. And the ordinary citizen is much less intelligent than intelligent people can imagine.

Anonymous

Restoring the comment wrongly censored by Legal Cheek

“…with many ethnicities and genders being represented.”

Don’t mix your adjectives. It’s poor English.

What you should be saying is:

”…with many ethnicities and both genders being represented.”

Anonymous

*all genders

Not both.

Anonymous

You can have ‘all genders’ rather than ‘both genders’ if you like. The meaning remains the same.

That said, since ‘all’ usually implies a number far greater than two, its use in this context is probably a little misleading.

Scep Tick

I hope this is the first in a series, followed by articles by Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Tich.

Martin Routh

One for the teenagers.

Just Anonymous

To the anonymous author of this article: I commend your enthusiasm. And I do not wish to dampen it.

However, there is something I think you need to learn. It is something which EVERY university student learns (or should learn) as a result of their studies.

Your opinions, by themselves, have no value to anyone else.

If you want other people to treat them with value, then you have to support them. With evidence. Or rational argument. Or even appropriate personal experience and/or expertise.

You have sat on one jury. You have absolutely no idea how ‘jury diversity’ affects the subsequent course of justice. This is not something on which anyone could possibly have any meaningful opinion in the absence of either properly conducted research or far more lengthy personal experience. No-one is interested in being lectured in things by someone who, however genuine and sincere, patently knows nothing more about such things than they do.

For what it’s worth, I made the same mistake myself. I remember, for example, submitting an essay once where I was opining loftily on the meaning of the Rule of Law, completely failing to give the reader any reason why they should prefer my unevidenced analysis to the competing analysis of expert minds far more established than mine (for example, the analysis of Lord Bingham in his excellent book, The Rule of Law).

So take this lesson for your subsequent essays and assignments. Give your opinions appropriate support, and then watch your readers start to care.

Anonymous

Or not

Anon

I think part of the point of jury trial and the principle that what happens in the jury room is not to be repeated is the idea of ‘jury equity’. The article uses the concept of ‘justice’ but then AR and MR in the same sentence. The bigger picture is about what gives ‘law’ authority? Parliament makes the law but why do citizens have to follow it? You then get into social contract theory and principles of legitimacy. The jury system plays an important role in upholding the rule of law in Britain. After all, if enough people were to choose to disregard ‘the law’ or set up a separate system of law making, would ‘the law’ still be law? At some point wouldn’t the new system achieve legitimacy and become socially binding?

It’s very easy as a law student to get bogged down in minutiae if statute and to believe in ‘black or white’. When you go into practice (and age) you’ll start to see the shades of grey and elements of policy and politics which always permeate.

I’ve spoken to US lawyers where jury voir dire is conducted and they think it’s crazy that we let total randomers decide! For those who say diversity doesn’t matter, I think this again comes back to legitimacy, the principle around justice both being done but also having been seen to have been done, and statistics (certainly from the US where jurors can be interviewed) which show discrimination, bias (including unconscious bias) has a real impact.

LikeItIs

I once had to do jury duty. Two things surprised me. First, how despite it being obvious the accused was guilty “ordinary people” could be suckered into obvious defence barrister bluster into thinking there might be doubt. And second, just how incredibly thick a lot of “ordinary people” are. Our criminal justice system is a dream if you are a criminal.

Ciaran Goggins

Nobody finds the accused guilty on plod’s “evidence”.

Constable Savage

Hello Ron

Legal Sleuth

This reads like an essay ordered from an online essay shop. I out you as a Ukrainian English professor proficient in the use of Wikipedia, and claim my £5.

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